Lenin, in his book "'Left Wing' Communism An Infantile Disorder," written in 1920, maintains that there are lessons from the Russian Revolution that may be of more general interest than to Russia alone. That was 92 years ago. The world of the early twenty-first century is one dominated by global financial capital and effectively controlled by a few advanced capitalist economic powers and at least one semi-capitalist (or quasi-socialist) economic power who (with few exceptions) lord it over the majority of the world's population dwelling in underdeveloped and super exploited regions. Trying to find what those lessons might be today may be more difficult than finding them was in 1920.
In explaining the background of the Russian Revolution and its lessons Lenin, in Chapter Three of "Left-Wing" Communism, discusses the history of Bolshevism from 1903 until the October Revolution in 1917. Let's look at this chapter to see if there are any lessons for today or to see if it is just a record of what Lenin elsewhere calls the "historical peculiarities of Russia."
Lenin divides Bolshevik history into six stages which I shall briefly review. First is the period 1903-1905 "preparation for the revolution." This was a period when the three main classes of Russian society all sensed that a revolution was in the air and contended over the tactics to engage in and what sort of program should be advanced. The classes he mentions are the bourgeoisie (the liberals), the petty bourgeoisie (democratic forces calling themselves social democrats or social revolutionaries) and the working class (the authentic revolutionary forces). The classes grouped around the Czar had evidently already been eclipsed by the three "main" classes as Lenin doesn't mention them (although many of the liberals supported the idea of a "constitutional" monarchy). He does say, however, that besides the three main classes there were "intermediate, transitional or half-hearted forms."
Well, even with the economic crisis the world is still faced with in 2012, whose working class could be considered authentically revolutionary today? There are some glimmers of revolutionary class consciousness in Europe (Greece for example), in the Third World there are some workers and Communist/ Socialist movements that are actively fighting the capitalist system in one way or another (Nepal, parts of India), and Latin America is beginning to seriously challenge US dominance. US workers haven't even got a labor party going for themselves yet and divide their votes, along with the petty bourgeoisie (which many workers think they are part of, calling themselves "middle class" ) between the two major parties of the bourgeoisie. As for the smell of revolution in the air, it is undetectable at the moment (perhaps masked by greenhouse gases). One gets, however, a whiff of fascism.
In the advanced capitalist world there is not much evidence of the effects of this stage of Bolshevik history. However, there is something analogous that has been going on in Europe and elsewhere. All over the world people have been organizing and educating themselves to fight back against the corporations that have been attacking their environments and way of life. Big oil, and coal, and natural gas are increasingly finding resistance to their plans to exploit and pollute. Austerity is also being more and more rejected by the masses as a solution to the economic problems the bourgeoisie has brought upon the world. Workers in the US are beginning to wake up and fight back against the ultra-right (but this is still a very preliminary awakening.) The people may not be studying the history of Bolshevism at this point, but exploitation and oppression breeds opposition and so there is at least a family resemblance between what Lenin is writing about in the period 1903-1905 in Russia and today.
The second period, " the years of revolution", is that of 1905-1907. This is the period of the birth of the first Soviets in Russia. One would be hard pressed to find anything comparable going on today in the advanced capitalist world. However, the Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S. and similar movements in Europe and the Near East, the so called "Arab Spring''-- where not contaminated by imperialist intrigue-- are perhaps fetal developments of future Soviets or Soviet like
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While Lenin generally eschewed reliance on "spontaneity" as the motive force of revolutionary progress, he does say, "The Soviet form of organization came into being in the spontaneous development of the struggle." This two year period was marked by a general uprising, a revolutionary upsurge against the Russian ruling class and government. This type of "spontaneous development" does not appear to be on the horizon in the U.S. but is detectable to some extent in the poorer areas of the E.U. and, as the continued decline of the capitalist system now under way, becomes more and more intolerable for the general populations of these countries, we can expect to see the birth of revolutionary organizations analogous to those described by Lenin in LWC.
This will be a period of "The alteration of parliamentary and non-parliamentary forms of struggle, of the tactics of boycotting parliament and that of the participating in parliament, of legal and illegal forms of struggle, and likewise their interrelations and connections" and all this will be "marked by an extraordinary wealth of content." This will also be the period when the working class will emerge as the main leading revolutionary force and the "vacillating and unstable" middle classes will have to submit to its leadership for meaningful change to be brought about. The coming period will give the Communist parties and their allies an opportunity to again become the leading elements within the working class and society as a whole, which if they fail to seize it will lead to their replacement by new organizational forms of struggle. These next few years will be a "dress rehearsal" for even greater struggles to come.
The next period in the development of Bolshevism Lenin called the years of reaction (1907-1910). This period is really specific to Russia as we today are still on the cusp of a serious revolutionary outbreak analogous to 1905 so we don't have a current "years of reaction" (unless the Republicans win in the United States) to worry about. It would amount to putting the cart before the horse to discuss the reaction to a revolutionary outbreak that has not yet happened.
Nevertheless some comments by Lenin in this section are of universal application at any stage of a revolutionary struggle. One of which is "that victory is impossible unless one has learned how to attack and retreat properly." Underestimating the strength of the enemy and overestimating your own has led to many a defeat in the workers movement-- often due to a pigheaded "no compromise" attitude.
In periods of reaction those who can correctly gage the balance of forces are the ones who will ultimately prevail. During the 1907 - 1910 period the Bolsheviks emerged as the strongest party on the left "because they ruthlessly exposed and expelled the revolutionary phrase-mongers, those who did not wish to understand that one had to retreat, that one had to know how to retreat, and that one had absolutely to learn how to work legally in the most reactionary of parliaments, in the most reactionary of trade unions, co-operative and insurance societies and similar organizations." Understanding this explains the positions adopted by some Marxist groups in the U.S. under the ultra-reactionary period ushered in by the regime of George W. Bush. An advance to the rear in order to advance to the front later in US military lingo.
According to Lenin the years of reaction were followed by the years of revival (1910-1914). The revival started off slowly but speeded up because of two factors. One was the "Lena events of 1912." Lenin is referring to a massacre of workers in the Lena gold fields in Irkutsk by Tsarist troops which outraged Russian public opinion. The second factor was the exposure of the Mensheviks as "bourgeois agents." This needs some clarification.
It is not the case that the Mensheviks were consciously working against the interests of the Russian workers and peasants. In their own minds they thought they were furthering a reform program that had the most realistic chances for bringing about the changes which would most help the Russian masses. How then can Lenin call them "bourgeois agents?"
Lenin's rationale is that the Bolshevik program aims at the the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the creation of a worker's and peasant's state led by the working class. The Russian bourgeoisie is fighting tooth and nail, as are the Tsarists, against the Bolsheviks and seek to destroy their movement. But the attitude of the bourgeoisie towards the Mensheviks is quite different. The role of the Mensheviks, as also anti- Bolshevik (and thus for Lenin against the true interests of the workers and peasants) "was clearly realized by the entire bourgeoisie after 1905, and whom the bourgeoisie therefore supported in a thousand ways."
As a result of the consciousness raising due to the Lena events and the realization of the role of the Mensheviks this period saw the growing empowerment of the the Bolsheviks with the Russian masses, which was the result of their following "the correct tactics of combining illegal work with the utilization of 'legal opportunities,' which they made a point of doing." Note that in modern bourgeois democracies "legal" and "illegal" have different connotations than in nondemocratic dictatorial societies such as Tsarist Russia.
The next stage is that of the "First Imperialist World War (1914-17)." It is interesting that Lenin is calling the The Great War (as it was called up to 1939) the first of its kind as if foreseeing the bloody history of the coming decades (although Charles Repington, a British war correspondent and officer, published a book in 1920 entitled The First World War).
This destructive war, one of the fruits of the vaunted capitalist system, brought about the death of millions and a redistribution of markets among the victorious capitalists at the expense of their rivals. The world socialist movement, supposedly united in opposition to the war which many saw coming, split when it actually broke out into those parties who supported "their" governments (who were labeled "social chauvinists" by Lenin) and those who actively opposed the war on the grounds of internationalism (workers of the world should be united against their exploiters not fighting each other for the greater glory of their "own" national bourgeoisie.)
The Bolshevik stance was clear-- they opposed the war and actively agitated against supporting it among the people. This anti-war position became extremely popular amongst the majority of workers and peasants who were used as cannon fodder by the reactionary bourgeoisie. Lenin credits the adoption of this principled position, and the exposure of the social chauvinism of those who betrayed the principles of the international socialist movement as one of the main "reasons why Bolshevism was able to achieve victory in 1917-20."
We come now to the last of Lenin's six stages: "The second revolution in Russia (February to October 1917)." In February 1917 the bourgeoisie overthrew the moribund and useless Tsarist regime and instituted a democratic bourgeois republic freer, Lenin says, "than any other country in the world." This Provisional government was overthrown in the October by the Bolsheviks. What went wrong with the government of the "freest country in the world"?
The government was dominated by the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries (the SRs were a party basically representing peasant interests and petty-bourgeois socialists-- it was non, but not anti-, Marxist). Their weakness, according to Lenin, was their slavish (no pun intended) following of the discredited ideas of the social chauvinists of the Second International, called by Lenin "the ministerialists and other opportunist riffraff." The ministerialists were those so-called "socialists" who accepted portfolios in governments controlled by the reactionary bourgeoisie; this was considered rank opportunism by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, a case of what might be called right-wing socialism an infantile disorder. European workers should know all about these sorts of "socialists."
The western socialists engaging in these opportunistic tendencies were merely repeating in the West the tactics that so discredited the Mensheviks in Russia from 1905 on. "As history would have it, the opportunists of a backward country became the forerunners of the opportunists in a number of advanced countries."
Granted that the concept of "opportunism" is complex-- one person's "opportunist" is another person's "realist" -- I think Lenin uses the term to describe those who abandon principled Marxist positions to adopt positions fundamentally at odds with the long term interests of the working class because they sought temporary gains for themselves and their allies. They confuse, consciously or unconsciously, the strategic aims of Marxism with the tactical aims of the moment and mistake means for ends.
Lenin ends this chapter of LWC by pointing out that the reason "the heroes of the Second International [Lenin lists Scheidemann, Noske, Kautsky, Hilferding, Renner, Austerlitz, Bauer, Adler, Turati and Longuet, and besides throws in the Fabians, Mensheviks, etc.-- characters we shall meet later] have all gone bankrupt and have disgraced themselves " is due to their inability to understand "the significance of the role of the Soviets and Soviet rule."
The Soviets were councils of workers and peasants that came together to replace the bourgeois government not to submit to it and which combined both legislative and executive functions in one body. The Soviets did not represent the bourgeois concept of the "separation of powers" [for better or worse] and Lenin and the Bolsheviks saw them as a higher form of democracy (actually as an expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat) than bourgeois parliamentary democracy. The aforementioned opportunists, Lenin said, were all "slaves to the prejudices of petty-bourgeois democracy." For this reason they could not lead a successful proletarian revolution while the Bolsheviks could-- and did.
Lenin concludes that the Soviet form of government is rapidly spreading throughout the world to the workers of all countries. "Experience," Lenin says, "has proved that, on certain very important questions of the proletarian revolution [he means the establishment of Soviets], ALL countries will inevitably have to do what Russia has done."
Where are the Soviets today? If Lenin is right there will be no getting rid of capitalism without them-- or at least of getting rid of it by a working class revolution. Are there any viable alternatives to "petty-bourgeois democracy" on the horizon? If not, then, considering the fate of the Soviet Union, were the "opportunists" after all just "realists"? These are the questions to be answered as the struggle against the current capitalist crisis deepens and advances.
Thomas Riggins is the associate editor of Political Affairs online.