Saturday, September 08, 2007

The non-significance and significance of the Russian Revolution

If you ask people, hardcore Marxist-Leninists about the Russian Revolution they'll get really enthused, say that it was a great thing, but in the end not really have good reasons why it was a good thing beyond a general sense that it established 'socialism'.

Russia wasn't an industrial country, which is what Marx thought was necessary for a socialist state, and at the time of the Revolution it was barely a Constitutional democracy, the Duma having only been in place for.....twelve years? followed the previous Revolution of 1905.

Russia was located on the fringes of Europe and had the reputation as being one of the most undeveloped, backwards, states, something that had been ruled with an iron fist for centuries and was largely cut off from European thought until the 18th century. It followed a different religion, that of the Orthodox Church, and with it was linked more to the Eastern Roman Empire than the western. It could even have been called semi-Third World.

Why then was the Russian Revolution something other than a kind of vane attempt by socialist enthusiasts to institute the kind of state they wanted even though the country wasn't ready for it?

One of the answers, at least my answer, comes not from the economics of Russia but from the course of political change in western Europe during the 19th century. In terms of economics Russia was fucked, but in terms of politics.....things were somewhat better. The 19th Century saw a series of revolutions and attempted revolutions flow over Europe following the French Revolution and the unfortunate takeover of Europe by Napoleon, and during this time the ideas that motivated these revolutions and that motivated the general movements for change didn't remain static. Instead, as people struggled to define what in a post French-Revolutionary world constituted a just and good state they incorporated a lot of the new theories into their practice, for example a certain kind of nationalism, very unlike the type of nationalism advocated in the United States, that was based on the self determination of peoples. The evolution of political ideas had great significance for countries where the push for a liberal democracy was thwarted during the initial push in the mid 19th century.

What happened in the states that were still monarchies and were still set up in an anti-democratic and anti-liberal way was that the movements for social justice progressively accumulated the different doctrines that were produced so that when they finally broke through to the surface all of the most current doctrines were there in the programs. Socialism, particularly the idea of a radical socialist state, was one of the radical products of the late 19th century. Revolution had been brewing in Russia for a generation, with various revolutionary groups engaging in organization among peasants, I hate that word, and various flat out terrorist actions taken against corrupt officials as well as the monarchy itself.

When the Russian Revolution came it happened because Revolution was bound to break out in Russia sometime, because, in part, the outcome of the Revolution of 1905 didn't satisfy a lot of people. The Bolshevik Party, besides doing a heck of a lot of organizing on their own, partially rode the wave that was bound to break out anyways, gaining power and instituting socialism as part of the ticket. Actually there was initially a modern liberal state instituted in February of 1917, but it didn't go far enough, and a structure of dual power where the government effectively shared responsibilities with the Soviets, socialist councils. The October Revolution saw the Soviets part of the government take power.

Lenin, it turned out, was right about the possibility of Russia leapfrogging over the rest of Europe in establishing socialism, but for other reasons than are normally given.

The same sort of leapfrogging can be seen in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, where liberated areas weren't just turned into models of Republican society, in the sense of "Republic" not in the sense of the U.S. Republican party, but into full out anarchist territories with workers' control (although the fact that Communists and Trotskyists participated shouldn't be overlooked).

The pattern was unfortunately disrupted by World War I. Spain was neutral during World War I and Russia of course pulled out, had a Revolution, and so didn't experience the peace terms. The aftermath of World War I lead to a formation of states from the former Austro-Hungarian and German empires that in many cases were extremely weak. Anyways, that's it.

To an extent one could see the Chinese Revolution as being the next phase of Revolutions, but it was marred by the ideological excesses of the Chinese Communist Party.

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