Length estimate: Long (words > 1000)
’Tis almost the centenary of the Russian Revolution and hence, the perfect occasion to revisit that most momentous occasion of the modern era. Whatever you may believe about how history reproduces itself – that it merely rhymes, repeats or is repeated by those who fail to learn from it – there is little doubt that it creates brief space of opportunity – tiny, fleeting vacuums bereft of logic and continuity – where the wedge of human will can be driven in. This wedge can occasionally force the course of history onto a new, unforeseen path; it forecloses the possibility of continuity and leads inexorably towards an unfathomable future. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was just such a wedge and its relevance to the present era has never been greater.
The historiography of the Russian Revolution, especially the exact events of 1917, has been greatly influenced by the Cold War and its propaganda necessities. It has also been mired in academic controversies about the ideological affinity between Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin, the two figures most associated with the Soviet Union as an ideological and political entity. Opinions on the Russian Revolution usually inhabit a spectrum between “It was a genuine socialist revolution before Stalin happened” and “It was a ruthless takeover of power by a small clique in the name of socialism”. Needless to say, these interpretations are inevitably colored by the incongruence of the Soviet Union as the Revolution’s institutional heir.
Important as they are, we need not concern ourselves with these debates. Whether or not the Soviet Union was the logical conclusion of the Bolshevik revolution and more importantly, whether we can condemn the latter on the basis of the former, are questions that haven’t been settled to this day, one hundred years on. What makes the Russian Revolution important to us today, as far as this essay is concerned, is how it grew from, and responded to, a dying ruling order – Tsarist absolutism.
The Russian monarchy, which had been teetering at the edge of a cliff for decades, was finally tipped over by the First World War. Earlier its frailty had been shown up in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905 and the 1905 revolution; the outcomes of 1905 foreshadowed the events of 1917 rather vividly. Although the monarchy survived 1905 with the small concession of a consultative parliament (the Duma), it could – in the words of that Enrique Iglesias song – run and hide but it couldn’t escape its fate.
Over the course of the historic year of 1917, the Romanov dynasty was uprooted and tossed aside with a suddenness that made a mockery of its centuries-old existence.
Following a massive strike lead by hungry women mill workers in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), a Provisional Government was set up that was accountable to the Duma, the Russian Parliament, which had hitherto been a purely advisory body to the Tsar. The Tsar abdicated and Russia – just like that – became a republic. However, although formal power and international recognition rested with the Duma-backed Provisional Government, real power was held by the soviets – democratic workers’ councils. These councils controlled the telegraph, railways and most of the factory committees and hence, had immense leverage over the actual functioning of the state apparatus. This was the famous “dual power” structure- the formal power of the Provisional government existed at the pleasure of the real power of the soviets.
The ‘first’ revolution in February was a joint effort by all parties – liberal, socialist, Bolshevik and Menshevik – to bury the monarchy. The ‘second’ revolution – October – was quite different. In the months following February, the newly-established Provisional Government proved incapable of extricating Russia from the war and solving existential questions regarding the economy and land ownership. This misery was compounded by Prime Minister Kerensky who in June launched a disastrous Hail Mary against the Germans (the Kerensky offensive) and had to be bailed out of a counter-revolutionary coup lead by his own appointed Army chief by soviet soldiers. The soviets, made up of workers and soldiers thoroughly demoralized by the war and its consequent scarcities, handed majorities to the Bolsheviks in Petrograd, Moscow and other major cities in September.
Handed the ‘real’ power of the soviets, the Bolsheviks then moved to achieve their slogans of ‘all power to the Soviets’ by preparing to take over formal duties from the erstwhile Provisional Government. Crucially, through their influence in the Petrograd Soviet Military-Revolutionary Committee, the Bolsheviks had command over the city’s garrison. Thus, when in a futile attempt to pre-empt his downfall Kerensky moved to arrest the Military-Revolutionary Committee, soviet forces joined battle against the Provisional Government and within hours the Bolshevik insurrection was complete.
A Dying Order and A New Beginning
Today, the developed West finds itself in a similar situation. The ruling ideology its elites has championed and enforced across the world – neoliberalism – is on its deathbed. Yale Political Economy Professor Mark Blyth puts it most succinctly: “The era of neoliberalism is over. The era of neonationalism has just begun”. The rise of populist right- and left-wing forces – what Blyth calls ‘Trumpets’ – is a direct consequence of this failed system, which had been propagated by both center-left and center-right parties over the last three decades.
Time was called on neoliberal capitalism in 2008 with the Great Recession but, like Ivan Ilyich, it was able to stagger on, its futile philosophizing and optimism belied by its rapidly degenerating health. The political response has been slow in coming, but it has finally arrived. Those who puzzle over the rise of Donald Trump and the Brexit decision (and many more such ‘shocks’ in the offing) need only look at charts of climbing social and wealth inequality, worsening living conditions, flatlining wages and declining (!) life expectancy over the past three decades to understand it. The status quo was rejected both because it had failed an increasing proportion of the population over the years and because its champions – the center-left and center-right – had nothing substantively new to offer.
An important lesson of 1917 is that during tumultuous times society rapidly degenerates into tribal groups organized along lines that are best correlated with social and economic survival. In revolutionary Russia, that criterion was class: soldiers (who were essentially peasants) and workers demanded greater wages while the upper and middle classes wanted an end to soviet power and a ‘law and order’ government. The former shifted steadily to the left into welcoming Bolshevik arms while the latter put their faith into the reactionary Army Chief Kornilov, who later attempted an abortive military coup. Thus both the left and the right rapidly diverged from the nominally common ground of the Provisional Government. The outcome was decided in the favor of the soviets simply because they possessed the greater institutional and military power.
In the West, class remains an important line of distinction even if conditions of productions today are much different than those of a century ago. The modern equivalent of the Marxist distinction of the ownership of the means of production could be wealth or its obverse: debt. Prior to 2008, the economies of the developed world grew by steadily indebting their citizens to artificially enhance their consumptive capacity. This, not coincidentally, inflated a massive financial bubble that benefited the most influential sector of the economy: finance. However, this strategy has now reached its functional limits; people would rather pay down their existing debt than take on more to consume more. As a result, the illusion of widespread growth has been stripped away (if everyone’s doing well, income inequality doesn’t seem unfair) to reveal the real, structural inequities of industrial society. Those carrying the burden of student loans, medical financing, predatory credit card rates, payday loans etc. have a common cause and the revolt of the debtor class is something to watch out for in the future.
We live in tumultuous times. Those of us who look forward to the imminent demise of neoliberalism but are disappointed by the ascendancy of ‘Trumpism’ should not despair. This is just the beginning of a sequence of events – what Ian Welsh calls the next stage of the disease – the outcome of which can scarcely be predicted. As late as the summer of 1917 Lenin was jeered when he proclaimed that the Bolsheviks were ready to take power at the helm of the Russian government. Earlier, in January, he had himself predicted that his generation would not live to see the proletarian revolution. Whatever one may think of the Bolsheviks, it is important to acknowledge from a purely tactical perspective that they were the only political actors who were ready to back their words and ideology with actual power, and were successful in doing it. They provided a credible alternative to a liberal, moderate government that had failed to uphold the interests of the wielders of true power in that society at that time – the workers and soldiers.
A final lesson is thus: when the decisive moment arrives, it is those with the initiative and the power to back it that succeed in taking advantage and forcing in the wedge. We are moving on a path where such an opportunity will inevitably present itself, but if we are to take advantage of it, the work must begin now – regardless of how unpromising the prospects may be.
Suny, Ronald Grigor. The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.