Rethinking Revolution

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This collection of essays looks at revolution in the 21st century via the legacy of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Individual contributions range from assessments of the left in Latin America and Greece to a survey of Marx and Engels’ views on the revolutionary party, the October Revolution itself and the Chinese Communist Party. However, there are some notable omissions, such as any analysis of the Arab revolutions in 2011.

Some authors promote the need to break with the capitalist state, while others argue that the left has to capture and subvert the state electorally.

Andreas Malm describes the impact of global warming as “an accelerator of the 21st century, speeding up the contradictions of late capitalism”. He discusses the dilemma of making the impact of climate change real to those who seem distanced from its most catastrophic effects.

Robert Cavooris provides a perceptive analysis of the failure of the strategy for change in Bolivia, where the movement of indigenous peoples that brought Evo Morales to power in 2006 produced “an extraction based welfare state”.

This was not only based on an extension and reliance on exports of hydrocarbons, but entailed challenging the rights and movements of those same indigenous people who brought him to power. Rather than question the underlying strategy, Cavooris concludes from the continued existence of autonomous movements in Bolivia and elsewhere in South America: “All of these fragments of autonomous potential can, if organised in yet-to-be discovered ways, form a counter-power to the right, and prove that the only hope to protect and deepen the social gains of the pink tide is a pivot in their direction.”

Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin’s conclusions about Syriza intimate that Greece is too small a state and too entwined in the EU for the Syriza government to have contemplated defying the Troika and being driven out of the euro and the EU. The way forward is new broad-based socialist parties that will “enter the state” through elections in order to “transform the state”. Economic crisis might prevent a new government meeting people’s needs; the parties’ leaders might have to be kept under control, but transforming the state from within is possible, they argue, if sufficient incursions are made beforehand through controlling local and regional parts of the state.

Marx once said that “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”. In this particular instance, one tradition is still eating away at the left, even as it superficially appears to morph into something else.

The editors agree that October 1917 inspired millions of the exploited and oppressed masses worldwide with the possibility of revolutionary change. It led to the creation of mass communist parties around the world and acted as a stimulus to anti-colonial movements.

But the revolution was defeated through international isolation when the German Revolution failed in the 1920s. Trotsky, leader of the revolution alongside Lenin, was murdered by Stalin and his ideas written out of history. The emancipatory gains of the revolution were reversed and Stalin’s views prevailed. Marx’s proposition that socialism is about the self-emancipation of the working class got written out of the script.

When communist parties in Europe decided to break with Stalin’s Russia once and for all, they did not go back to the lessons of October, the writings of Trotsky or others Stalin had purged. In the main they turned their back on the idea of revolution and looked to reformism instead.

For Eurocommunism, as it was known, socialism became a project of capturing the capitalist state electorally and changing it from within. Eurocommunism, as Fabien Escalona describes in his chapter here, is the connecting thread to Syriza and Greece today.

The defeat of the Russian Revolution was a huge setback. The unwillingness to acknowledge this allowed old arguments that revolutions always fail to return.

The ongoing crisis of world capitalism and the horrors of neoliberalism are not going to disappear. Millions of workers in Europe and the US have lost faith in the old established parties, not least because traditional social democratic parties became managers of capitalism in the interests of capital.

And yet, clearly articulated arguments for socialist ideas get a favourable hearing. But so do the ideas of the “populist” right. Internationally, the working class is now a majority. The role of the working class in Tunisia and Egypt was crucial in 2011.

Fanning the flame of resistance everywhere, supporting and building social movements are central for any self-respecting left; but capitalist states, particularly those which conduct imperialist wars, are not going to be subverted from within. The ruling class will not surrender power gracefully.

This is not the time to abandon the idea of working class self-emancipation or the need to destroy the capitalist state. The recent experience of Syriza should make that clear. While some of the contributors to this collection have learned the lessons of events from 1917 onwards, others have drawn the wrong conclusion.