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December 8, 2017
RE: 100th anniversary -- part one
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917. New books and articles have appeared on the history of the revolution. There are those who think there is no alternative to capitalism, and there is no shortage of those who curse this example of working-class revolution. But for those looking for a way out of the growing miseries of today, the story of the first protracted attempt to build a new society has great appeal. At the time, the influence of the Russian revolution spread around the world, and sparked a revolution inside the revolutionary movement itself. It gave rise to tougher and more combative workers' parties; it ushered in a number of revolutions in the name of socialism; it connected the workers movement to the national liberation movement that would sweep the colonies and semi-colonies; and it spread the influence of Leninism around the world. It is not surprising that many today look back to these days with nostalgia.
But revolution hasn't come as soon as expected. It was thought that World War I and the Russian revolution were ushering in a general crisis that would bring capitalism down, and yet a hundred years later, capitalism is still here. If we are to continue the struggle for liberation, we need more than nostalgia. We need to study the revolutions of the past, but while doing so, we also need to take account of the changes in the world, both in the capitalist world and in the revolutionary movement. If we don't, we won't even really understand what the revolutionaries of the past were saying.
Marxism holds that the class struggle flows from the economic and social base of society. And we know that this base has changed substantially over the last century. This changes the type opposition that the working class faces and changes how the struggle should be conducted. We have seen the development of new forms of capitalism, such as state-capitalism built in countries which had overthrown the old ruling classes. We have seen the collapse of most of the old colonial system, but also its replacement by new forms of imperialist oppression, including the rise of new imperialist powers. We have seen the building of world capitalist bodies on a scale which would have been unimaginable in the past, and we have also seen new forms of extreme repression, such as fascism. We have seen various revolutionary parties rise and fall, or survive but be corrupted and become new oppressors. And moreover, we are living in the days of the beginning of the world environmental crisis, which endangers life itself but will undermine the present world economy and cause major changes in economics and politics everywhere. As Naomi Klein said, "this changes everything", but she doesn't recognize the full extent of the changes to come.
In both learning from the old revolutions and updating their lessons, we face many obstacles. The capitalist authorities lie about the past, or simply consign the best accomplishments of the working class and of the oppressed peoples to dusty archives; they hide the history of resistance and struggle, and of the role of the masses in achieving whatever is good in the present society. But we also face a major obstacle from within the left itself.
Among the setbacks in the last century of struggle has been the development of new opportunist and revisionist trends. The Bolsheviks fought the old revisionists, at one time identified with the German socialist Eduard Bernstein. Bernstein, at one time a proponent of Marxism, revised and distorted the socialist doctrine to say that revolution wasn't important, and that workers should only be concerned with immediate reforms. The Russian revolution couldn't have taken place without a struggle lasting years against Bernsteinism and similar theories, and this struggle within the activist movement resulted in the formation of the world communist movement. Many books and articles on the Russian revolution will talk about this.
But a new form of revisionism later arose within the communist movement itself, and among the ranks of those who speak in the name of the revolution. This was Stalinism, but also Trotskyism; despite their fierce fight against each other, both Stalinism and Trotskyism resemble each other in a multitude of ways. Both the Stalinists and most Trotskyist trends regard many regimes that suppressed working class freedoms as socialist or workers' regimes, albeit perhaps ugly or "deformed" workers' regimes. And neither Stalinism, Trotskyism, anarchism, nor left communism has proved able to take account of the various changes in the world situation; already decades ago these trends ossified into sterile rigidity; they think the world will come to them and their catchphrases, rather then the left having to adjust to the world.
We in the Communist Voice Organization come from a different trend of activists, one that originated in the mass upsurge of the 1960s and 1970s. The clearest activists and organizations from that time knew that something was wrong with the supposed communism of the Soviet Union and the pro-Soviet parties, but differed on what should be built in its place. The turbulent 1960s and 70s saw in the US such things as the struggle against the Vietnam war (as shown to a limited extent in the recent Burns and Novick documentary on the Vietnam War); the solidarity movement with the national liberation struggles in Africa and elsewhere; the intensification of the struggle of African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities against racism and violent repression; and it saw the spread of the women's movement, the strike movement, the environmental movement, the anti-nuclear movement, etc.
But it was not just a time of mass actions, but also of the search for a proper revolutionary theory. It saw a new generation of activists look towards the working class as the needed base for revolutionary change, and many looked for the real meaning of communism and of Marxism-Leninism. There was an anti-revisionist theoretical struggle against the worn-out dogmas of the pro-Soviet parties; there was the rise of what was called the new communist movement, and an attempt to return to the real revolutionary spirit of Marxism. This was not simply a struggle over some formulations or theses, but over whether the working class had interests separate from the liberal reformists, over whether it would recognize all the different factions of exploiters, state-capitalists as well as market capitalists, and over how to build organization among the masses.
This anti-revisionist wave was eventually defeated, and only fragments still exist. As a result, today the Stalinists and Trotskyists and some others dominate what is regarded as the communist movement. In this situation, it has become fashionable in much of the left to ridicule the anti-revisionist movement of the past, and the way it crumbled into pieces. But at its best, the anti-revisionist movement brought forward theoretical issues of immense importance; it gained support at many workplaces among workers fed up with the liberals and the labor bureaucrats; and it gave immense support to liberation struggles of many sorts. We in CVO are determined to uphold the best aspects of the anti-revisionist movement as a contribution to the new waves of struggle and new forms of the liberation movement that will eventually develop.
Today there is struggle everywhere, and there is confusion and division everywhere. The working class, mass struggles, and revolutionary organizations around the world face disorganization and disorientation. Even those organizations that are relatively large and powerful in various countries are stuck in the old patterns. Moreover much of the world movement is stuck in nostalgia, not just for certain movements of the past, but for various horrible regimes of the present. Dictatorships, with their hands dipped in the blood of the local activists, are prettified in the world movement as anti-imperialist.
But, in a way, this isn't so different from what happened in the past. A century ago, there were also major problems in the world movement, and the Second International, which had at one time been the highest achievement of socialist organization, stood against the revolution. The Bolshevik revolution was carried out in defiance of the social-democratic leadership. And today, if we are to truly commemorate the anniversary of this revolution, we need to work for a radical change in the world left-wing movements of our time. Without change in the left-wing movement, the developing world crises will only replace one form of capitalism by another, rather than also reinvigorating a revolutionary movement for the development of a new society.
In the coming months, this article will delve into the some of the changes in the world situation over the last century, and what this means for revolutionary theory. We welcome contributions to this discussion from our readers.
By Joseph Green <>
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Posted on December 11, 2017
Some typos have been corrected.