Recalling the Russian Revolution – Part 2
My analyses and positions will be sketchy and will merely indicate areas where grace errors were committed.
Ideology: My main proposition here is that socialism or, more strictly and correctly, socialist revolution is not and has never been in “competition” with capitalism in the manner of two football teams, under the same rules, entering a field of play to decide which side is stronger or better. No! Socialism is essentially, in its Marxist conception, a theoretical and practical revolutionary critique of capitalism, a total critique – ideological, political, economic and cultural – aimed at supplanting capitalism by dismantling it. Socialism aims at creating an entirely new world on entirely different foundations. It can therefore not go into competition with capitalism on the grounds of capitalism.
The socialist critique of capitalism emerged historically from the logic and contradictions of capitalism. Having emerged from the womb of capitalism, socialism became the only system that can terminate its logic, end its contradictions and irrationalities, and abolish the exploitation which is its essence. That is, dismantle it. History has now confirmed that this revolutionary process will, of necessity, be long and continuous. It has to be continuous because history has again confirmed that a revolution will either move forward or slide backward. Trotsky called it the permanent revolution. It is a continuous process “whose every successive stage is rooted in the preceding one and which can only end in the complete liquidation of class society.”
Democracy: Socialism, as understood and advocated by Marx, Marxists and revolutionary socialists, is a higher, deeper and wider form of democracy, not a negation of it.
The revolutionary concept of democracy is what has been called popular democracy. But under class rule – which capitalism and early stages of socialist transformation are – democracy is a contradictory regime at best and a false, deceptive and cynical claim at worst. Revolutionary socialists, rather than denying this, should admit it, explain the bases of the contradictions and measure the advance to socialism by the degree to which these contradictions are resolved, and impediments to full-blown democracy removed, in favour of the people. Advance to democracy is also measured, in particular, by the way the revolutionary regime treats its opponents. As Rosa Luxemburg, the martyred co-founder of the German Communist Party warned the Russian revolutionary leaders during the turbulent period following the revolution, political freedom is essentially freedom for the opponents of the government. Why? Because, as she wrote from her prison cell in Germany, “government supporters already have that freedom”. And for revolutionary socialists, the horizon of democracy extends from the polity and the political parties to the political economy, gender relations and culture.
The National Question: In the years following the 1905 uprising in Russia, but before the 1917 Revolution, European revolutionaries of Marxist persuasion vigorously debated the national question. The concrete question before revolutionaries especially those of Russian, Polish and German origins can be put like this: “What should be the platform of revolutionary parties struggling for workers’ power and socialism in countries where there are oppressed nationalities fighting for autonomy or independence?”
Three broad answers can be articulated from this debate: a debate which was not only acrimonious but often bitter. I present them in the order of their complexity. The first is simply that self-determination struggles are by nature and definition reactionary and should therefore be opposed by revolutionary movements fighting for socialism. The second broad response is that revolutionaries should support national unity but assuring minority ethnic nationalities that the victory of socialist revolution – by removing capitalists and ethnic chauvinists from power – would create the condition for achieving freedom and equality for all nations and peoples. History has definitively falsified and discredited the first position and consigned it to the dustbin. The second position, as it stands, has become mechanical, that is, undialectical. And history has made it progressively unconvincing because it has not stood the test of actual historical experience. It has to be re-formulated.
The third response can be separated and stated in three lines. The first line was a warning to Marxists and revolutionary socialists to treat all political questions concretely, that is, not abstractly, but with the consciousness of time and space. This was what Lenin called the categorical imperative. The second line was that Marxists and revolutionary socialists should, in principle, endorse and uphold the right of nations and peoples to self-determination up to and including the right to political secession. The third line was that without prejudice to the second line, revolutionaries fighting for socialism were obliged to support their comrades in oppressed nations fighting for both socialism and national unity, that is, national unity under socialism.
But suppose revolutionary socialists in an oppressed nation are split: one side supporting secession and the other supporting national unity? This is a real-life situation where the demand for concrete analysis of concrete reality becomes stronger. The analysis should lead revolutionary socialists to a political decision – a political decision that goes back to the fundamentals, including the proposition that the socialist revolution was not conceived simply as a national project; rather, it was conceived as a simultaneously national and international struggle for peoples’ liberation from capitalist exploitation and oppression and the promotion of unity and solidarity of working peoples world-wide. And in this struggle victory in a single country can be guaranteed only if it expands to other countries especially the neighbouring ones.
This complex third line is a general advice against unprincipled positions. The line, however, emphasizes three points. One, where the struggle for socialism and the struggle for self-determination are simultaneously raging, revolutionary socialists are obliged to adopt a political position which strengthens the struggle for socialism conceived as an international and continuous project. Two, under no circumstances should revolutionaries go into alliance with capitalists, reactionaries and ethnic hegemonists who may be carrying the banner of “national unity” or with anti-socialist opportunists and ethnic chauvinists who may be carrying the banner of “self-determination”. Three, in certain concrete situations, depending on the correlation and balance of forces, but always with the strategic aim of socialism in view, revolutionary socialists may propose or endorse the replacement of “demand for self-determination up to and including political secession” with “demand for enforceable right to freedom from national or ethnic domination and oppression.”
Taking a long view of history and with the benefit of hindsight, what can we now say about the monumental setbacks suffered by socialism since the late 1980s, especially between the middle of 1989 and the end of 1991 – setbacks which included the defeat of communist – party governments by essentially anti-socialist forces in eastern and central Europe?
My summary answer here is in two parts: First, that the monumental setbacks were the cumulative results of huge errors committed by socialism in the three dialectically connected areas of ideology, democracy and the national question. And secondly, that what happened, rather than being a “defeat” of socialism as a logical historical project, was simply a definitive and categorical verdict that socialist struggle against capitalism can no longer proceed along the path defined principally by the trajectory of the latter Soviet Union. The search for a new path has been going on across the globe. No one can say where the new rupture will take place or how it will take place or when it will take place. In 1917 the rupture took place not in Germany or England or France, as “expected”, but in Russia, the most backward country in capitalist Europe. The new rupture may take place anywhere and anytime on this globalised, but deeply endangered planet.
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