The orphaned revolution: the meaning of October 1917

Issue: 156

Alex Callinicos

Many of the great revolutions of modern times continue to be celebrated. This is true, for example, of the American and French Revolutions, which have their national days (4 and 14 July, respectively), of the Irish Easter Rising, whose centenary last year was lavishly (if hypocritically) commemorated, and of the Chinese Revolution of 1949, which provides the ruling Communist Party with its legitimacy.1 But the Russian Revolution of October 1917 is an orphan. Its centenary year is passing with little in the way of celebration. This is markedly different from the 50th anniversary in 1967, which I am old enough to remember. Even in the West there was a grudging acknowledgement of the revolution as an event of world-historic significance.

The 1967 anniversary fell during the Cold War. The relevance of October 1917 was obvious since one of the two antagonists in that conflict, the Soviet Union, drew its legitimacy from that revolution. But within 25 years the USSR was no more. Vladimir Putin, who has dominated the successor state, the Russian Federation, famously told the Duma in 2005: “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”.2 But that doesn’t mean he’s an enthusiast for its supposedly founding event. According to Owen Matthews:

He reveres the Soviet Union, which he served as a Communist Party member and KGB officer, but abhors the popular uprising that created it. In recent years the Kremlin has invoked various chunks of Russian history to boost Putin’s legitimacy, erecting statues to Prince Vladimir of Kiev and Ivan the Terrible and rewriting history books to cast Stalin as a heroic war leader rather than a genocidal murderer. There’s no modern party line on the revolution, however—no “official” or “patriotic” version. The conservative pre-revolutionary prime minister Pyotr Stolypin—famous for hanging revolutionaries from “Stolypin neckties”—is probably the closest thing to an official hero of the period. Stolypin was elected “history’s greatest Russian” in a TV phone-in in 2008 (a rigged poll, it turned out—Stalin got more votes).

Like Stolypin, Putin is first and foremost a Russian imperialist, and a believer in stamping out dissent. Putin has made it clear that he regards the Bolsheviks who toppled the state as dangerous traitors. Lenin and his professional revolutionaries “betrayed Russia’s national interests”, he told young activists at the annual Kremlin-run Seliger national youth forum in 2015. The Bolsheviks “wished to see their fatherland defeated while heroic Russian soldiers and officers shed blood on the fronts of the first world war”. The revolution, in Putin’s view, caused “Russia as a state to collapse and declare itself defeated”…

Indeed, Putin’s Russia in many ways resembles the kind of country that the White Guard would have built had they, not the Reds, won the Russian Civil War. Putin’s social conservatism, his use of the church to grant his rule legitimacy and his intolerance of dissent are an updated version of the Tsarist-era formula of “autocracy, Orthodoxy and the will of the people”. Boris Yeltsin may have reversed the revolution by overthrowing the Communist Party. But it’s Putin who has brought the century’s circle back to its beginning. Putin has restored Holy Russia: a society where ruler and church are united, where dissent is treason and where secret police watch for the slightest flicker of popular discontent.3

In the West fear of and paranoia about Russia isn’t dead, as the hysteria surrounding Donald Trump’s dealings with Moscow has shown. Richard Painter, chief ethics lawyer for George W Bush (a job that must have left plenty of time for his historical studies), traced these back to 1917: “we know what the Russians have been doing, they’ve been doing this ever since the 1917 Russian Revolution, when the Communists started to want to destabilise all the Western democracies…and that has continued right up to 2017”.4 But these Cold War throwbacks haven’t stirred much interest in October 1917.

In the academy, the efforts stimulated by the radicalisation of the 1960s and 1970s to develop a social interpretation of the revolution have been largely repressed. The academic consensus portrays October 1917 as a regressive coup that condemned Russia to chaos and totalitarianism, whether this is expressed in what purports to be “social history”, as is the case with Orlando Figes’s execrable A People’s Tragedy, or takes the form of the more conventional political narrative found in the works of the veteran Lenin-hater Richard Pipes.5

This consensus is accurately represented in a recent collection called Historically Inevitable? Turning Points of the Russian Revolution.6 Edited by Tony Brenton, sometime British ambassador to Moscow, the book’s take on October is clear from the start: the epigraph is a quotation from the great poet Aleksandr Pushkin: “Russian revolt, mindless and merciless”. The low-point for once isn’t provided by Pipes’s contribution, but by an essay by Edvard Radzinsky mourning the martyrdom of the wretched Tsar Nicholas II and his family. Figes devotes his chapter to bewailing the fact that a police patrol in Petrograd on 24 October 1917 mistook the disguised Lenin on his way to the soviet in the Smolny Institute for “a harmless drunk”; had they recognised him, “history would have turned out very differently”.7 Reviewing the collection, Sheila Fitzpatrick, an outstanding historian of the Soviet era, mildly complained that Brenton’s own contribution smacked of “a free-market triumphalism that, like Fukuyama’s End of History, may not stand the test of time”—to which Brenton replied that this was like being accused of “round earth triumphalism”.8 Such is the vanity of the neoliberal extreme centre even as its comeuppance approaches.

But the silence that largely surrounds October 1917 is to be found on the left as well. David Harvey is undoubtedly the outstanding living Marxist intellectual today, whose writing and online lectures have played an enormous role in attracting interest in Karl Marx’s critique of political economy. But if we consult a recent, popular exposition of this critique that is concerned not just to explore what Harvey calls the “seventeen contradictions” of capitalism but to outline how a political alternative might develop, there is a discussion of Frantz Fanon’s revolutionary humanism, but Lenin and 1917 both go unmentioned. Harvey briefly mentions the scenario in which, amid rising inequality, “a self-consciously organised anti-capitalist revolutionary movement (led, in Leninist accounts, by a vanguard party) will rise”, only to dismiss it as “too simplistic, if not ­fundamentally deficient”.9

Harvey has always kept his distance from Leninism, but leading Marxist intellectuals linked to traditions that took October 1917 as their reference point have suggested that the collapse of the Soviet Union and its client regimes in 1989-91 drew a line separating the contemporary left from the Russian revolutionary experience. The great historian Eric Hobsbawm, who remained loyal to the Communist Party of Great Britain till its demise in the late 1980s, wrote an epilogue to his famous trilogy on the long 19th century, Age of Extremes, subtitled The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991. The implication of this periodisation was that the epoch that started with the October Revolution was over. Indeed, Hobsbawm argued that: “The world that went to pieces at the end of the 1980s was the world shaped by the Russian Revolution of 1917”, and described the present as “the world that has survived the end of the October Revolution”. But Hobsbawm’s real subject proves to be global capitalism, its great crises in the early and late 20th century, and headlong expansion in between, compared to which “the history of the confrontation between ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’…will probably seem of more limited historical interest—comparable, in the long run, to the 16th and 17th-century wars of religion or the Crusades”.10

This equivocation is probably related to Hobsbawm’s conflicted relationship to his own Communist past—reflected in his final judgement in Age of Extremes on the Russian experience: “The tragedy of the October Revolution was precisely that it could only produce its kind of ruthless, brutal, command socialism”.11 By constrast, denying that Stalinism was the inevitable outcome of October 1917 is one of the defining features of the Trotskyist tradition. Daniel Bensaïd was until his early death in 2009 one of the most outstanding exponents of this tradition, so it is interesting to see him adopt Hobsbawm’s formulation of the Short Twentieth Century:

It was clear that German unification, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, etc., marked the end of a great cycle that began with the First World War and the Russian Revolution. If one accepts the rough notion of “the short twentieth century”, it was a matter then of a historical turning point that would of necessity translate itself more or less quickly into a reshuffling of the geopolitical pack, but also into redefinitions and recompositions among currents in the workers’ movement.12

What’s left of October?

But what exactly does it mean to talk of “the end of the October Revolution”, or “the end of a great cycle that began with the First World War and the Russian Revolution”? Clearly, as Bensaïd says, 1989-91 marked a geopolitical transformation, the collapse of the rival superpower bloc to Western capitalism, which removed any obstacles to the global hegemony of the United States. This in turn permitted the generalisation of the neoliberal economic policy regime, pioneered by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan at the beginning of the 1980s. At the same time neoliberalism was exported to the Third World thanks to the debt crisis precipitated by the sharp rise in interest rates and the dollar engineered by Paul Volcker, chairman of the US Federal Reserve Board, in October 1979.

Bensaïd also refers to “redefinitions and recompositions among currents in the workers’ movement”. The formation of the Communist International in 1919 represented the Bolsheviks’ effort to generalise the October Revolution. The failure of this strategy facilitated Stalin’s coming to power in the Soviet Union and the transformation of the Communist parties into instruments of Moscow’s foreign policy. So a substantial section of the workers’ movement—to which many of the best militants gravitated for several generations—had its fate tied to that of the Soviet state. The latter’s decline—and the conflicts between Moscow and Beijing for leadership of the international Communist movement—contributed to the decomposition of this movement, though this was increasingly driven by the CPs’ embrace of reformist politics little different from that of their social democratic rivals. The collapse of the USSR accelerated this process, notably with the suicide of the Italian Communist Party, the most important Western CP. Today there are a handful of CPs left that still count—the ultra-Stalinist Greek and Portuguese parties, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which has lost its electoral strongholds, and the South African Communist Party, whose fate has been tied for the past 50 years to that of the African National Congress, today in increasingly serious crisis.

So we can certainly say that 1989-91 marked a sharp shift in longer-term ­processes—the neoliberal reorganisation of global capitalism under US hegemony and the decline of the Communist movement. Does this mean that October 1917 has nothing left to say to us? Has the implosion of the Soviet bloc blocked off the light that used to radiate from October? How one answers this question in part depends on whether one agrees with Hobsbawm in effectively equating the Russian Revolution with Stalinism. It is, of course, the founding principle of this journal to reject any such equation. For us, the Stalinist transformation of the USSR in the late 1920s and early 1930s—forced industrialisation and collectivisation of ­agriculture—represented, not the construction of socialism, but the consolidation of a counter-revolution. A new ruling class, the central political bureaucracy in party and state, came to dominate and exploit an atomised and disenfranchised working class that, under pressure of military competition with the Western imperialist powers, it subjected to the logic of capital accumulation. The upheavals of 1989-91 therefore for us represented, not the restoration of capitalism, but, as Chris Harman put it, a move sideways, from one form of capitalism—bureaucratic state capitalism—to another—the kind of market capitalism prevailing in the neoliberal era.13

This analysis presupposes that October 1917 was an authentic workers’ revolution, and that therefore the elite consensus that portrays it as a coup is wrong.14 But what kind of light continues then to filter through from October? Does it simply offer generalised revolutionary inspiration or does it have a more specific strategic significance? Compare what Trotsky wrote in 1924, in his little book, The Lessons of October:

It is indispensable for the entire party, and especially its younger generations, to study and assimilate step by step the experience of October, which provided the supreme, incontestable and irrevocable test of the past and opened wide the gates to the future…for the study of the laws and methods of proletarian revolution there is, up to the present time, no more important and profound a source than our October experience.15

The Lessons of October had a polemical purpose: Trotsky was trying to pin the failure of the German Communist Party successfully to seize power in October 1923 on his political rivals in the Bolshevik Party, notably Grigori Zinoviev, president of the Comintern. But the arguments he makes in the book have a broader relevance, and it is undeniable that Trotsky’s political practice was guided by this view of October 1917 as a touchstone of revolutionary strategy and tactics. His own History of the Russian Revolution is unrivalled as a narrative of the entire process, with its stops and starts, advances and retreats, informed by all Trotsky’s theoretical intelligence. The fascination of the early years of the Comintern lies in the efforts of the leaders of the Russian Revolution—above all Lenin and Trotsky—to share their experience and explain its lessons to the leaders of the new Communist parties, above all in Germany.16 The pertinence of this experience was of course felt by later revolutionary Marxists. Indeed its reflection, especially in Lenin’s writings, continued to be crucial for Bensaïd’s own thinking about strategy, despite what he writes about the end of a cycle.17

There has been a revival of Marxist interest in Lenin, beginning with Lars Lih’s vast rescue operation of What is to be Done?, but then extending to an interesting study by Alan Shandro, Tamás Krausz’s major intellectual biography (winner of the 2015 Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize), Tariq Ali’s elegant reflections and John Molyneux’s presentation of a Lenin for Today.18 Molyneux’s book is firmly in the International Socialist tradition. But the rest of this body of writing is mainly about rescuing Lenin from the caricatures to which he has been reduced by the academic consensus and restoring him to his proper place in the history of Marxism and of the Russian Revolution, not exploring the continuing relevance of his crowning achievement. The main recent exception to this, Molyneux’s Lenin for Today aside, is provided by Slavoj Žižek, but Žižek’s “Leninism” is so idiosyncratic and pervaded by his perennial philosophical preoccupations as to offer little in the way of a recognisable politics.19

So does the revolution of October 1917 retain a universal significance and offer continued lessons for socialists, as Trotsky argued? There is a fundamental reason why we should answer: Yes. An even older debate on the left, going back to the revisionist controversy in German Social Democracy at the end of the 19th century concerns whether or not capitalism can be gradually reformed out of existence: “Reform or Revolution?” as Rosa Luxemburg put it.20 We are currently experiencing a revival of left reformism that is especially pronounced in Britain. Its leaders, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, opt for the “Reform” horn of Luxemburg’s dilemma. Honourably and consistently, they argue that British society can be transformed within the constitutional framework of parliamentary democracy. So do the leaders of the other main new left currents in Europe—Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, Podemos and Syriza.

The problem is that the historical record shows no case of a successful left reformist government. The most important Labour government—the 1945-51 administration of Clement Attlee—did carry through major reforms, but both the consolidation of the welfare state and the nationalisations of basic industries went with the grain of the elite consensus that developed during the Second World War that a reconstruction of British capitalism was necessary. Very similar reforms were introduced in France in 1944-6 under the far from radical premiership of Charles de Gaulle.21 The general pattern of social-democratic governments is that they are forced to abandon the often modest reforms they were elected to implement by a combination of pressure from the financial markets and sabotage by the state bureaucracy and big business. Should they try to stand firm, they are broken at the wheel. The grimmest modern example of this is offered by the Chilean military coup of September 1973, which overthrew the Popular Unity administration of Salvador Allende. But the defeat of Syriza in July 2015 offers a new way of destroying a left wing government: shut down its banking system and force it to collaborate in impoverishing its people.

So if the reformist road is shut, we need to take the revolutionary alternative seriously. The Russian Revolution of October 1917 represents the first successful overthrow of capitalism. Indeed, in the International Socialist tradition we believe it to be the only successful socialist revolution: the other great revolutions of the 20th century—above all, China, Vietnam and Cuba—broke the hold of colonial domination, but they instituted bureaucratic state capitalism modelled on Stalinist Russia.22 This makes it all the more important to study and see what we can learn from October 1917.

Various intellectual devices serve to close off the experience of October 1917 from us. The most obvious is that the Russia of 1917 has nothing in common with the globalised capitalism of 2017. Russia was a vast, predominantly agricultural society, the overwhelming majority of whose population were peasants oppressed and exploited by the Tsarist autocracy allied to the landowning nobility and gentry. Late imperial Russia’s backwardness is undeniable, but this doesn’t mean that the country was outside the global process of capitalist development. Lenin and Trotsky understood this very well. As Krausz puts it:

Even before 1905, Lenin revealed this particular development, namely that Russia became embedded in the world system through a process that today we might describe as “semi-peripheral integration”, whereby precapitalist forms are preserved under capitalism in order to reinforce subordination to Western capitalist interests. Capitalism integrated precapitalist forms within its own functioning.23

Krausz develops this point elsewhere:

The scientific discovery of this alloy of a variety of forms of production and divergent historical structures is what strengthened Lenin in his conviction that Russia was a region of “overdetermined contradictions” (Althusser). Such contradictions can only be resolved on the path of revolution. Lenin only became conscious of the net of correspondences in which the local particularities of capitalism and of the possible overthrow of the Tsarist monarchy were conjoined in the course of over a decade of scientific research and political struggle. These investigations led him to the discovery of something of great significance, which was summed up in his thesis of Russia and “the weak link in the chain of imperialism”.24

Trotsky arrived at the same conclusion by a somewhat different path. In his great studies of the 1905 and 1917 revolutions he placed more emphasis on the role of the Tsarist state. Geopolitical competition with more advanced European powers to its west forced the autocracy from Peter the Great at the start of the 18th century onwards to import more advanced techniques (along with the capital required to finance them and often the personnel to operate them) from these rivals. This is the context in which he formulates his theory of uneven and combined development:

Unevenness, the most general law of the historic process, reveals itself most sharply and complexly in the destiny of the backward countries. Under the whip of external necessity their backward culture is compelled to make leaps. From the universal law of unevenness thus derives another law which, for the lack of a better name, we may call the law of combined development—by which we mean a drawing together of the different stages of the journey, a combining of the separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms.25

This process gives rise to “the privilege of historic backwardness”, which “permits, or rather compels, the adoption of whatever is ready in advance of any specified date, skipping a whole series of intermediate stages”.26 This “privilege” allowed the Tsarist state, seeking to maintain its position relative to the other Great Powers to promote the rapid industrialisation of the country, financed by loans from its close ally France, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1913 Russia was the fifth largest industrial economy in the world, with the most highly concentrated workforce in Europe. This created islands of advanced industry from which emerged the militant working class that drove the revolutions of 1905 and 1917.27 The contradictions of Russian development—what Krausz calls “the net of correspondences in which the local particularities of capitalism and of the possible overthrow of the Tsarist monarchy were conjoined”—were already sufficiently profound at the beginning of the 20th century to produce the explosion of 1905. The dependence of the local bourgeoisie on the state and foreign capital and the militancy of the new working class created by recent industrialisation already put proletarian action to the fore, even if reaction in the most brutal form, foreshadowing fascism in the resort to anti-Jewish pogroms, eventually triumphed.

This contradictory combination of advanced and backward did not make late imperial Russia unique: other newly industrialising economies of the late 19th century—Italy and Austria-Hungary, for example—shared some version of it. The conservative historian Norman Stone argues that the years before 1914 saw a general rise in class struggle throughout Europe that reflected the impact of the Great Depression of 1873-95, in particular in pauperising peasants and (in its recovery phase) raising prices:

As prices moved upwards after 1895 or, in the preceding decade, as agricultural countries were able to afford less and less, there were strong impulses toward new industry. In Germany or Great Britain, costs had to be cut; and machines were stimulated. In Italy or Russia, agrarian depression prompted industrialisation… In the 1890s, new technology was passed, through foreign investment, from the advanced countries to these weaker ones, which, accordingly, experienced dramatic economic change in very few years. Proletarian (and peasant) armies appeared in the factories. In the 1880s, in other countries, they had found prices that were gently declining, and real wages had risen substantially. In the later 1890s and again after 1906, they found prices that were going up quite fast. The result, everywhere, was a degree of labour militancy that led some observers to conclude that revolution was just round the corner.28

Even in the strongest imperialist power, Britain, these antagonisms produced the Great Unrest of the years leading up to 1914. Russia, its socio-political structures destabilised by rapid industrialisation, was much more vulnerable, as Lenin stressed in his “Letters from Afar” after the revolution of February 1917. In particular, the autocracy’s pursuit of an aggressive and expansionist foreign policy brought it into conflict in the Balkans with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and hence with the latter’s ally, the German Second Reich; the death-struggle of two decaying imperial regimes triggered the inter-imperialist conflict that had been developing for years around the antagonism between Britain and Germany and dragged most European powers and their colonies into the First World War. Stone argues that “after 1909, almost all European countries went into a period of political chaos” from which, for the right, war seemed a liberation.29 In fact the Great War swept away much that was left of the old regime in Europe. In Russia the inferno of war substantially increased the size of the industrial working class and subjected it to new privations, while millions of peasants were dragged from their scattered plots and concentrated together into a vast conscript army whose defeats delivered history’s judgement on the autocracy.30

The new revolutionary process that opened in February 1917 gave even greater scope to the working class that had played a leading role in 1905. The predominantly peasant army whose mutinies sounded the death knell of the Romanovs provided a bridge between the factories and the villages. But the vanguard of the revolution—the skilled metal workers of Petrograd and Moscow—faced problems and developed forms of organisation fundamentally similar to those of workers in more advanced capitalist centres further west—in Berlin, Turin, Sheffield and Glasgow. Politically, indeed, the Russian workers were the more advanced—already developing in 1905 the soviet as a form of proletarian self-organisation that could unite the entire class in waging both economic and political struggles and thereby lay the basis of an alternative to the existing capitalist state. Working class militants in central and western Europe found in the Russian workers’ struggles a solution to the problems they were facing. It is thus no accident that many metal workers rallied to the Communist parties formed to spread the Bolshevik revolution westwards.31

Similarly the form taken by the October Revolution itself did not represent a regression to traditional Russian authoritarianism or primitive popular instincts, as respectively Pipes and Figes argue. On the contrary, in the urban crucible, we see what Trotsky calls “the active orientation of the masses by a method of successive approximations”, as a modern working class and its allies in the army tried out different political solutions, moving progressively to the left as the policies of the more moderate parties were exposed as bankrupt.32 The Bolshevik objective of soviet power represented the terminus of this process of radicalisation both because it fitted the needs of the situation and because the party was the very opposite of the closed totalitarian sect portrayed by mainstream scholarship. As Alexander Rabinowitch puts it in his fundamental study of the October Revolution in Petrograd, which definitively demolishes the idea of a Bolshevik coup:

The phenomenal Bolshevik success can be attributed in no small measure to the nature of the party in 1917. Here I have in mind neither Lenin’s bold and determined leadership, the immense historical significance of which cannot be denied, nor the Bolsheviks’ proverbial, though vastly exaggerated, organisational unity and discipline. Rather, I would emphasise the party’s internally relatively democratic, tolerant and decentralised structure and method of operation, as well as its essentially open and mass character—in striking contrast to the traditional Leninist model.33

The real peculiarities of 1917

Does this mean that October 1917 involved no specific features? Of course not: the revolution represented, like every historical event, a peculiar blend of the universal and the particular. Two distinguishing marks stand out. The first is common to all the societies of the epoch—the Great War itself. The provisional government that sought to replace the Tsarist regime in February 1917 insisted on remaining loyal to the Western Entente powers, France and Britain, and to the new and powerful ally represented by the United States, and on continuing Russia’s participation in the war. This was one of the main driving forces of the process of mass radicalisation described by Trotsky. Workers and soldiers rallied to the Bolsheviks because they emerged as the only party that was determined to end the war and meant it, as the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk showed. The Bolsheviks’ opposition to the war, along with their support for the peasants’ seizure of the estates of the nobility and gentry, were critical to the October Revolution’s ability to survive in an overwhelmingly rural society. Lenin’s own most incisive analysis of the conditions of Bolshevik success stresses that the seizure of power enjoyed “(1) an overwhelming majority among the proletariat; (2) almost half of the armed forces; (3) an overwhelming superiority of forces at the decisive moment at the decisive points, namely: in Petrograd and Moscow and on the war fronts near the centre”, and that the Bolsheviks’ subsequent adoption of the Social Revolutionaries’ programme for the peasantry to seize the land permitted them to “neutralise the peasantry”.34

But more broadly, the outbreak of the First World War opened an epoch of war, revolution and counter-revolution that ended only in August 1945. The German conservative historian Ernst Nolte aptly summed this era up as “the European Civil War”.35 The industrialised slaughter in the trenches had helped to break many workers and intellectuals loose from their loyalties to the existing ruling classes. Outside Russia the most dramatic example was provided by the German Revolution of 1918-23. But the experience of war also had a brutalising effect: many veterans of the front-line shock troops were recruited to the fascist movements that emerged as the steel tip of counter-revolution after 1918. In Russia the counter-revolutionary offensive took the form of the terrible Civil War that raged between 1918 and 1921. Not only did this materially contribute to the disintegration of the Russian industrial economy and the dispersion of the working class that had made the revolution, but the eventual Bolshevik victory was at the price of a general militarisation of society. The party itself lost much of its working class roots. It became a party in arms, demanding heroic self-sacrifice from its members and imposing top-down discipline as the price of success.36

The second distinctive feature of October 1917—and one that differentiates Russia from its Western counterparts—was the absence of a strong reformist tradition. Lenin himself refers to this in the famous passage in “Left-Wing” Communism where he writes: “It was easy for Russia, in the specific and historically unique situation of 1917, to start the socialist revolution, but it will be more difficult for Russia than for the European countries to continue the revolution and bring it to its consummation”.37 In other words, the strength of social democracy is dependent on the level of development of the society concerned: the entrenched power of the reformist trade union bureaucracy and its parliamentary allies represents a major obstacle to any revolutionary struggle, but the conquest of power in an advanced society would benefit from the relatively high level of productivity and education that it would inherit from capitalism.

This point is undoubtedly correct. Antonio Gramsci famously pointed to the much more developed institutions of civil society in Western Europe that acted as entrenchments against revolution.38 But it can be over-stated. Even in Lenin’s day social democracy could coexist with a certain level of backwardness. Gramsci himself had to grapple with a specific form of uneven and combined development in Italy where a relatively developed industrial capitalism in the North offered the leaders of the workers’ movement economic concessions in exchange for abandoning the Southern peasantry to their fate at the hands of the landowners and the church.39 Moreover, all the great revolutionary experiences involve the very rapid emergence of reformist forces after the crisis of the old regime. Lenin himself in the same text points this out in the Russian case:

In a few weeks the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries thoroughly assimilated all the methods and manners, the arguments and sophistries of the European heroes of the Second International, of the ministerialists and other opportunist riff-raff. Everything we now read about the Scheidemanns and Noskes, about Kautsky and Hilferding, Renner and Austerlitz, Otto Bauer and Fritz Adler, Turati and Longuet, about the Fabians and the leaders of the Independent Labour Party of Britain—all this seems to us (and indeed is) a dreary repetition, a reiteration, of an old and familiar refrain. We have already witnessed all this in the instance of the Mensheviks. As history would have it, the opportunists of a backward country became the forerunners of the opportunists in a number of advanced countries.40

There are many more recent examples of the rapid emergence of reformism during mass movements in less developed societies. As independent workers’ movements emerged in newly industrialising economies during the 1980s, we see Solidarność in Poland rapidly embracing the idea of a “self-limiting revolution”, proletarian insurgency in Brazil increasingly contained by the new Workers’ Party’s incorporation into electoral politics, and, during the last days of apartheid, the South African Communist Party developing with astonishing speed as a mass social democratic party. Much more recently, during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011-13, the Muslim Brotherhood assumed some of the functions of a reformist party mediating between the state and the masses, with disastrous consequences for both the Brotherhood and the revolution. These examples reflect the tendency of workers’ struggles to limit themselves, arising from a lack of self-confidence on the part of workers still deeply shaped by the experience of exploitation and oppression under capitalism and therefore willing to find compromises with the existing order. What is required to overcome this lack of self-confidence is, as 1917 showed, both the practical experience of the failure of these compromises and of self-organised workers’ ability to overcome them, and the presence among these workers of a mass revolutionary party that helps them to learn the necessary political lessons.

Even in Western Europe we are today a long way from the highly structured and relatively stable reformist workers’ parties of Lenin’s time or of the period after the Second World War. What we see are two apparently counterposed but in fact closely related phenomena. On the other hand, once powerful and successful parties can commit suicide (the Italian Communist Party) or find themselves marginalised (Pasok in Greece, the Parti Socialiste in France or the Workers’ Party in Brazil). On the other hand, new reformist formations can emerge very quickly—Syriza in Greece and Podemos in the Spanish state are the classic recent examples, but there is also the extraordinary limited case of Labour in Britain, one of the longest established social democratic parties whose leaders are striving to reinvent it as an anti-austerity party.

Both these phenomena are consequences of the long-term decline of social democracy, exacerbated by its transformation into social liberalism in the era of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, and of the way in which ten years of crisis and austerity have weakened bourgeois political structures. This means that even in the centres of advanced capitalism revolutionaries no longer confront the stable reformist formations that for Lenin and Gramsci represented a major obstacle to socialist revolution in the West. Of course, the reasons for the relative instability of contemporary social democracy are very different from those—the Tsarist ­autocracy’s repression of all democratic challenges—that prevented the development of stable reformism in pre-revolutionary Russia. Nevertheless, as the trajectory of Syriza—which in five years has moved from the great hope of the international left to the Troika’s gendarme—indicates that contemporary reformist politics has a fluidity and instability that can create openings for revolutionaries, if they are capable of responding effectively.

In this context, it’s worth considering the two real political innovations offered by the October Revolution. The first of these—the soviets and the logic of dual power, the coexistence and intertwining of two antagonistic political forms, bourgeois and proletarian, which their emergence generated after February 1917—proved to be universal.41 Throughout the 20th century great mass working class struggles threw up forms of democratic self-organisation that had a tendency to develop beyond instruments of struggle into the basis of a new form of political power challenging the sovereignty of the capitalist state. In different forms and under different names—from the workers’ councils in Germany 1918 through the cordones in Chile 1973 to the workers’ shoras in Iran 1978-9—these organisational improvisations offered glimpses of the self-managing society that would develop from successful workers’ revolutions. The mass movements provoked by the present crisis—above all, the occupations of the squares in 2011, from Tahrir to Puerta del Sol, Syntagma and Zuccotti Park—showed a similar aspiration to more direct forms of democracy than are offered within a capitalist framework, though they were not driven by the dynamic of mass strike that gave rise to the original soviets and their counterparts elsewhere.

The second great innovation was the Bolshevik Party itself. Saying this contradicts the immense effort that Lars Lih has made to deny the political distinctiveness of Bolshevism, arguing that Lenin was a loyal follower of Kautsky who sought to apply the latter’s conception of a socialist movement to Russian conditions.42 Without entering here into the extensive controversy Lih’s interpretation has provoked, I would make the simple point that he relies on a naïve pre-Marxian understanding of history in which what happens is a realisation of actors’ intentions. In other words, let’s concede for the purposes of argument that Lenin set out, from What is to be Done? onwards, to create a version of German Social Democracy in Tsarist Russia. The problem was that this project was simply unrealisable because of the absence of the conditions—in particular, the development of an advanced and expanding capitalism capable of offering reforms and of a quasi-parliamentary bourgeois regime—that allowed the SPD to develop as a legal mass party contesting elections. The necessity of revolution—initially as Lenin understood it, a bourgeois revolution to sweep away the autocracy but one that, because of the weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie, would be driven from below by mass movements of workers and peasants—required a very different kind of party. This was the kind of party whose emergence is traced by Tony Cliff in the first volume of his biography of Lenin.43 Lenin and his comrades made a party in circumstances not of their own choosing, and, without intending to do so, created something new.

One way of explaining the difference is to borrow a formulation of Kautsky’s. He famously said:

The socialist party is a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party. We know that our goal can be attained only through a revolution. We also know that it is just as little in our power to create this revolution as it is in the power of our opponents to prevent it. It is no part of our work to instigate a revolution or to prepare the way for it. And since the revolution cannot be arbitrarily created by us, we cannot say anything whatever about when, under what conditions, or what forms it will come. We know that the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat cannot end until the latter is in full possession of the political powers and has used them to introduce the socialist society. We know that this class struggle must grow both extensively and intensively. We know that the proletariat must continue to grow in numbers and to gain in moral and economic strength, and that therefore its victory and the overthrow of capitalism is inevitable. But we can have only the vaguest conjectures as to when and how the last decisive blows in the social war will be struck.44

A revolutionary party on Kautsky’s account is thus a party that surfs the deep tides of history, an organic product of the development of capitalism and of the class struggle that represents the progressive fusion of socialist ideology and the workers’ movement. As Shandro puts it, Second International Marxism assumed “that the growth of the productive forces determines the direction of history, that the material and the intellectual conditions of socialism develop in parallel, and that Marxist theory and the working class movement fuse harmoniously”.45 The practice of Bolshevism involves precisely a break with this assumption of “harmonious fusion”—as Lenin retrospectively portrays it in “Left-Wing” Communism, the success of the genuine revolutionaries depends on the unrelenting struggle of different political tendencies that Kautsky evaded in the SPD—including, as Trotsky emphasises in The Lessons of October, the kind of intense debates that took place among Bolshevik activists and within the party leadership during and after the revolution.

But, more than that, the Bolsheviks were a revolution-making party in the sense that they actively intervened in the class struggle to help shape and direct the revolutionary process. We can see this most clearly when they organised insurrections—first the Moscow rising of December 1905 and then of course the seizure of power in October 1917. Lenin’s writings in the autumn of 1917 show no assurance that “the overthrow of capitalism is inevitable”. On the contrary, they are full of a sense of urgency and the insistence that, if the Bolsheviks don’t seize the moment, they and the working class will be overwhelmed by counter-revolutionary catastrophe.46 But in many ways more important was the process between April and October when the Bolsheviks set out systematically to win a majority of the working class. Lenin explained what was involved in his April Theses:

The masses must be made to see that the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government, and that therefore our task is, as long as this government yields to the influence of the bourgeoisie, to present a patient, systematic and persistent explanation of the errors of their tactics, an explanation especially adapted to the practical needs of the masses.47

Winning the majority also involved the use of what would later be called the united front. For example, in August 1917 the Bolsheviks joined with the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries who previously had been persecuting the Bolsheviks as German agents to stop General Kornilov’s attempted military coup. The democratic and open life of the Bolshevik Party allowed it to reflect the growing radicalisation of workers and soldiers and to channel it in the direction of the seizure of power. But this doesn’t mean these debates were simply a free for all. The central issue at stake in the autumn of 1917 was whether or not to organise to seize power. Lenin’s and Trotsky’s arguments for insurrection (on tactics their approach differed, and Trotsky’s judgement generally proved better) were resisted publicly by a group led by Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev. Eventually their opposition was overcome by an ultimatum from the Central Committee majority threatening them with disciplinary action. A revolution-making party can’t function if debates aren’t resolved, at least provisionally, and if the minority doesn’t respect majority decisions.48

The intellectual basis for the strategy pursued by the Bolsheviks was the theory of imperialism Lenin had developed during the war years. Thus he wrote in a key text in April 1917: “We are out to put an end to the imperialist world war into which hundreds of millions of people have been drawn and in which the interests of billions and billions of capital are involved, a war which cannot end in a truly democratic peace without the greatest proletarian revolution in the history of mankind”.49 As Krausz notes, this analysis relocated the contradictions of Russian society within the transformations undergone by capitalism at the global level—the emergence of monopoly capitalist blocs and their competition, which generated inter-imperialist rivalries liable to produce world wars to which socialist revolution was the only riposte. This justified the drive for soviet power in Russia as the beginning of a global revolutionary process in which a new Communist International would seek to bind together workers’ insurgency and nationalist revolts in the colonies. Pursuing this process required the generalisation of the Bolshevik model of a revolution-making party.50

The problem is that this innovation proved much harder to export than the soviet form of organisation, which workers have again and again spontaneously rediscovered in pursuing the logic of their mass struggles. The early Comintern represented a heroic attempt to do exactly that, at high speed. But as Cliff also shows in his biography of Lenin, it proved extremely hard to graft what was genuinely new about Bolshevik strategy and organisation onto the national specificities of different socialist traditions. There was no easy substitute for the long and hard process through which the Bolsheviks shaped themselves through periods of mass struggle and of reaction, amid repression and exile, creating traditions of common action, robust debate and mutual trust that proved their worth in 1917. The very power and prestige of the Bolsheviks after the revolution proved a crucial obstacle to a genuine internationalisation, since they encouraged a tendency by national leaderships to defer to Moscow rather than creatively to decide for themselves the strategy and tactics appropriate to their situation, treating the Bolsheviks’ advice with respect but not as instructions. The tendency was institutionalised through the “Bolshevisation” of the Comintern under Zinoviev in the mid-1920s and then transformed into the systematic subordination of national Communist parties to the foreign policy needs of the Soviet state under Stalin.

The failure of the revolution to spread westwards permitted the process of uneven and combined development—which had created the conditions for revolution in 1905 and 1917—now to go into reverse and favour counter-revolution. The logic of interstate competition at the centre of Trotsky’s analysis of the peculiarities of Russian development continued to demand rapid industrialisation. Reimposing this imperative required the destruction of the achievements of the October Revolution. This took a highly specific form, one that disoriented the left for two generations—not the visible overthrow of the Soviet state, but the transformation of the Bolshevik regime, which by the early 1920s was a party dictatorship whose leaders were caught between a subjective commitment to working class power and their objective location as the managers of a state confronted by more advanced imperialist Great Powers further west. As Marx would have predicted, social being triumphed over consciousness: the forced industrialisation of Russia in the late 1920s and early 1930s subjected workers and peasants to the priorities of capital accumulation and transformed the USSR into an imperialist power in its own right, caught up in the global process of economic and geopolitical competition—under the banner of “the construction of socialism”.

In his judicious and erudite recent history of the Russian revolutionary era, Steve Smith suggests this outcome indicates the Bolshevik project was misconceived. He approvingly quotes the warnings of the French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès and Kautsky against expecting socialist revolution could emerge from war, and adds:

The Bolsheviks never doubted that a decadent capitalist system would collapse sooner rather than later… A hundred years on…it is clear that the Russian Revolution did not come into existence because of the terminal crisis of capitalism… Through the 20th century, capitalism displayed immense dynamism and innovation…even as it concentrated immense wealth in a few hands and created new forms of alienation.51

This argument seems to rely on another idea of Kautsky’s, namely that the First World War was not itself a consequence of the development of capitalism, which could peacefully evolve into a globally integrated “ultra-imperialism”.52 It ignores the fact that in the years following the October Revolution capitalism experienced what is still the worst crisis in its history—the Great Depression of 1929-39. Writing in 1934, the liberal economist Lionel Robbins was perfectly clear that 1914 and 1929 were closely connected: “We live, not in the 4th, but in the 19th year of the world crisis”.53 And capitalism got out of this crisis through another, even more destructive imperialist world war, during which the Holocaust exposed humankind at its nadir. Lenin’s gamble, that socialist revolution in Russia could bring down the entire imperialist colossus, had it succeeded, would have prevented this orgy of barbarism. He liked to quote the German saying: “Better a horrible end than a horror without end [Besser ein Ende mit Schmerzen als Schmerzen ohne Ende]”.

Smith himself is willing to take such alternative histories seriously. The following criticism of Lenin has an interesting twist:

Crucially, he bequeathed a structure of power that favoured a single leader, and this made the ideas and capacities of the leader of far more consequence than in a democratic polity. What this logically entails—though it is often overlooked by those who see Stalinism as arising seamlessly out of Leninism—is that if Bukharin or Trotsky had become general secretary the horrors of Stalinism would not have come to pass, although economic backwardness and international isolation would still have critically constrained their room for manoeuvre.54

But an even bigger might have been is if the revolution had been able to break out of its confinement within the borders of the Russian Empire. Above all, what if the German Revolution had developed beyond the limits of overthrowing the Kaiser and instituting a democratic republic? The period 1918-23 in Germany saw a series of advances and retreats by the forces fighting for a German October, one that ended in ultimate defeat. But if we refuse to accept a deterministic view of history and are willing to envisage alternative scenarios for the Bolshevik regime, then logically there is no reason to rule out the possibility of a revolutionary breakthrough outside Russia. And had that happened, then the history of the 20th century would have been very different.55 Missing out on the delights of consumer capitalism might have been a small price to pay for avoiding Auschwitz and Hiroshima and beginning to build a genuinely communist society.


But, alas, the revolution was lost. This brings us to where we came in, with Bensaïd’s “end of a great cycle”. The Soviet Union eventually fell victim to the very logic of economic and geopolitical competition that formed it in the first place. But in part because of the ideological investment of much of the left—even many of those critical of Stalinism—in the USSR as in some sense an alternative, however deformed and distorted, to capitalism, the revolutions of 1989-91 greatly amplified the global neoliberal offensive. But now neoliberal capitalism itself is in deep crisis—not simply because of the 2007-8 crash and its aftermath, but also because of the revolts against ruling class parties. This provides a favourable context in which to reaffirm that the October Revolution continues to bear a significance in the present.

This is not simply because it represents the greatest political blow ever struck to the capitalism system. More specifically, the whole experience of Bolshevism must remain a fundamental reference point for those who seek to continue the revolutionary Marxist tradition. This does not imply the kind of mechanical imitation that Lenin himself denounced, notably at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922. Trotsky, champion of the “Lessons of October”, always insisted that carrying on a tradition implies a process of selection of what is still usable from the past. The great revolutionary experiences at the end of the First World War—not just Russia 1917 but Germany 1918-23 and Italy 1918-20—require close critical study, not as an antiquarian exercise, but to establish the real causes of the triumphs and failures of that era and thereby to learn how to be better revolutionaries in the present.

In the Russian case, the workings of uneven and combined development in the context of imperialist world war made possible a fusion of the universal and the particular—most especially, of a universal tendency for mass workers’ struggles to create situations of dual power and the particular existence of a revolutionary party capable of taking advantage of such a situation. Can such a singular convergence be repeated? It is the wager of revolutionary Marxist politics that it can. The coming together of popular self-organisation and a mass revolutionary party will certainly take place in very different conditions and under very different forms from those that prevailed in Russia in 1917. But, however great the victories these new experiences may produce, they will not dim the light radiating from 25 October 1917, when the Russian working class showed that—and how—capital can be broken.

Alex Callinicos is Professor of European Studies at King’s College London and editor of International Socialism


1 On the reality of the Easter Rising and the hypocrisies surrounding it, see Allen, 2016. The English Revolution of the 1640s is, like October 1917, largely disavowed by the political elite and, thanks to the victory of “revisionism” among academic historians, misrepresented as a religious and constitutional dispute. The broader historiographic repression of the great revolutions is criticised in Haynes and Wolfreys (eds), 2007. Many thanks to Joseph Choonara, Kevin Corr, James Eaden, John Rose and Camilla Royle for their comments on this article in draft.

2 Osborn, 2005.

3 Matthews, 2017.

5 Figes, 1996, and especially Pipes (ed), 1996. Pipes’s scholarship is demolished in Lih, 2001.

6 Brenton (ed), 2016.

7 Figes, 2016, p141. The exception in this very poor collection is a characteristically incisive assessment of the geopolitical context by Dominic Lieven—Lieven, 2016.

8 Fitzpatrick, 2017, and Brenton, 2017.

9 Harvey, 2014, p91.

10 Hobsbawm, 1994, pp4 and 9.

11 Hobsbawm, 1994, p498. Hobsbawm’s historical, political, and personal ambivalences are scrutinised in forensic detail by Perry Anderson in linked reviews of Age of Extremes and Hobsbawm’s 2002 autobiography Interesting Times—Anderson, 2002a and 2002b.

12 Bensaïd, 2003a. This text originated in debates between the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (France) and the Socialist Workers Party (Britain) at the height of the anti-capitalist movement in the early 2000s. Daniel wrote it in December 2002 as a letter addressed to me and co-signed by other LCR leaders (Léon Crémieux, François Duval and François Sabado); my English translation was published the International Socialist Tendency Discussion Bulletin No. 2, January 2003.

13 Cliff, 2003, Harman, 1990, and Callinicos, 1991.

14 See the admirable account of the revolution in Sherry, 2017.

15 Trotsky, 1975, pp202 and 203.

16 See especially Broué, 2004, Harman, 1983 and Riddell (ed), 2015.

17 For example, Bensaïd, 2002, and Bensaïd, 2003b. See my discussion of Bensaïd’s political thought, which emphasises Lenin’s significance for him, in Callinicos, 2012.

18 Lih, 2006, Shandro, 2014, Krausz, 2015, Ali, 2017, and Molyneux, 2017. Arguably this “Lenin revival” was kicked off by the 2001 conference on Lenin organised in Essen by Slavoj Žižek: the papers (including contributions by Bensaïd and myself) are collected in Budgen, Kouvelakis and Žižek (eds), 2007.

19 Žižek (ed), 2002, offers probably his fullest discussion of Lenin, along with a useful selection of the latter’s texts from 1917. For some criticisms of Žižek’s appropriation of Lenin, see Callinicos, 2001, pp391-397, and Callinicos, 2007.

20 Luxemburg, 1908.

21 Addison, 1977, Fenby, 2011, chapter 16.

22 Cliff, 1963.

23 Krausz, 2015, p363.

24 Krausz, 2015, p89. The development of Lenin’s thought prior to 1917 and particularly his evolving understanding of the agrarian question are explored in detail in Shandro, 2014.

25 Trotsky, 2017, p5. See also Trotsky, 1973. Marshall Poe offers a somewhat similar historical perspective, arguing that, from the 16th century onwards, the Russian state was able to fend off European domination by exploiting its geographical remoteness and autocratically imposing modernising reforms modelled on its more advanced Western rivals—Poe, 2003.

26 Trotsky, 2017, p4.

27 For these and much more data on the political economy of late imperial Russia, see Smith, 2017, chapter 1.

28 Stone, 1983, pp86-87. See more generally the brilliant two opening chapters of this book.

29 Stone, 1983, p144.

30 Three major recent historical studies, Clark, 2013, Tooze, 2014 and Lieven, 2015, all stress the important role played by Russia in the outbreak and course of the First World War. Tooze’s book is unusual in how seriously it takes Bolshevik theory and strategy. Stone, 2008, is a classic account of Russia’s war.

31 Smith, 1983, and Murphy, 2005, offer two fundamental studies of Russian metalworkers; for the West, see Broué, 2004, Hinton, 1973, and Gluckstein, 1985.

32 Trotsky, 2017, pxvi.

33 Rabinowitch, 2017, p311. It should be stressed that Rabinowitch is in no sense an apologist for the Bolsheviks, since he is highly critical of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s opposition to forming a coalition government of all the parties in the soviet—even though this would have ensured the victory of the counter-revolution over a soviet regime paralysed by its internal divisions.

34 Lenin, 1964c, pp262 and 263.

35 Nolte, 1987.

36 For a largely fair picture of the Civil War, see Smith, 2017, chapter 4. See also, for broader reflections on the formative power of counter-revolutionary violence in the development of revolutionary terror, Mayer, 2000, and, for a defence of the Bolsheviks, Rees, 1991. Pirani, 2008, is a recent study of the Bolsheviks’ increasing alienation from the working class in the early 1920s.

37 Lenin, 1964d, p64.

38 Gramsci, 1975, II, pp865-867.

39 Especially Gramsci, 1978.

40 Lenin, 1964d, p30.

41 See Callinicos, 1977, and Gluckstein, 1985.

42 See the extensive bibliography and critique of Lih’s interpretation of Lenin in Corr and Jenkins, 2014.

43 Cliff, 1975-8

44 Kautsky, 1909, p50.

45 Shandro, 2014, p99.

46 This comes out very clearly in the texts collected in Žižek (ed), 2002.

47 Lenin, 1964a, p23. See Corr, 2017, for a critique of Lih’s attempt to diminish the significance of the April Theses.

48 This process is described in detail in Rabinowitch, 2017 (see pp310-11 for the ultimatum).

49 Lenin, 1964b, p88.

50 Callinicos, forthcoming.

51 Smith, 2017, pp391-392.

52 Kautsky, 2011.

53 Robbins, 1934, p1.

54 Smith, 2017, p388.

55 Harman, 1983.


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