Wednesday, August 2, 2017

100th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution, continued...

"October - the Story of the Russian Revolution" by China Mieville, 2017

The story of the October/November 1917 revolution in St. Petersburg is a great story.  It is also a politically instructive story.  While not as thorough or advanced as Trotsky's "History of the Russian Revolution," or as passionate as John Reed's "Ten Days That Shook the World," this book still delivers by being a bit of a combination of the two.  Mieville is not a socialist but he is a sympathetic (science) fiction writer and he brings some of those skills to describing this momentous event.

Speeches in the Factory
What strikes one first about the book is the calumnies against the Russian revolution as being a 'putsch' or an isolated, dictatorial act are so far from the truth as to be laughable.  Mieville shows that the upsurge in 1917 was a vast, mass event engulfing other nationalities, the Russian peasantry, the working class, the army, the socialist parties and parts of the intelligentsia.  Actual social revolutions cannot be made except by the most real and massive display of 'democracy' any country has seen.  A social revolution is far more democratic than the most fair and 'attended' election - if those exist any more.  Certainly, in the U.S., they do not.  Revolutions do not come by accident.  They are ultimately determined by vast social forces in a moment in history, not by tiny groups of 'leaders.' This story shows that.

Another thing the books illustrates is that the 'moment' is key.  While many people think that events will always leave time for action, the truth is that 'windows' open and close very quickly.  It was this Bolshevik understanding, especially as provided by Lenin, but also Trotsky, that the 'moment' had arrived.  Actual revolutionaries understand the issue of timing, while reformists 'have all day.'  The 'stage' theory at work among many Marxists is a concretization of this reformist idea, as it shaped the Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary majorities' reactions to this situation.  They felt the bourgeoisie had to 'build capitalism' as a first stage. Even some Bolsheviks thought that workers rule was premature after February, and that a block with the bourgeoisie was necessary.   Most Bolsheviks dropped this after Lenin's "April Theses" but it remained in the party even afterwards as events unfolded, especially in the person of Kamenev.

Mieville tracks the radicalization of the soldiers, the workers, and even the Bolshevik Party itself, as they navigated through seeming chaos, land and building occupations; fraggings and arrests; the beatings of foreman, officers, capitalists and landlords; invasions of stores and warehouses; bloody war, Czarist counter-revolution and pogroms; crime, desertion, starvation and rage.  He shows how the social-democratic Kerensky "Provisional Government," which refused to call off the war, or give land to the peasants or open the granaries to the starving, sealed its own fate.  From a love hero to goat in a matter of months, the beloved and mourned 'socialist' Kerensky could not break with property and capital.  Kerensky at one point in September formed a block with the former Czarist general Kornilov to institute martial law, until even he understood that Kornilov would do away with him too.

The key demand, of course, is "All Power to the Soviets."  Lenin carefully waited until the real left had a majority in the Soviets before initiating actual military action to take power in early November, or late October, depending on your calendar.  Lenin wanted this to be a 'fait accompli' before the 2nd Congress of Soviets.  He feared the Congress would still be undemocraticaly controlled by the rightist socialists  For the short period prior to this, Lenin dropped the slogan of 'power to the Soviets' due to the pro-war/pro-capitalist role of the Soviets.  But the slogan returned when the Bolsheviks and their allies in the Left SRs and Menshevik Internationalists won a majority in the Congress.  Trotsky became head of the St. Petersburg Soviet once again.  Anarchists,  Kronstadt sailors and left Bolsheviks in the Bolshevik Military Organization (MO) chafed at the bit to come out before the Soviet majority had fallen in their hands, especially in the July days.  Ultimately the demand was not 'all power to the RSDLP" or 'all power to Lenin" or 'all power to the Bolshevik Central Committee' - it was all power to the mass democratic organizations that had spread throughout Russia and its satellites - Latvia, Finland, Ukraine, etc.  This must never be forgotten.

What is a Soviet?  It is the Russian word for 'council' or 'commune.'  The councils included all the workers at a factory, soldiers in the army, residents in a town or city.  They included a large number of citizens acting in a mass democratic manner, sort of like a New England 'town halls' except with actual power to pass and enforce laws, to police neighborhoods, to decide policy, to manage and control property and production.  They are vastly more democratic than the farce of 'representative democracy' we have in the U.S. - or now in Russia.  Of note, in St. Petersburg, the police, who were guarding the last bunker of the Czar in February - were driven out of town, throwing their uniforms away.  In working-class neighborhoods of St. Petersburg - the Vyborg and Petrograd for instance - they were replaced by armed citizens.  As 'starry eyed' as you might find this, that will be the ONLY way that abuses by the capitalist police are ended.  

Additionally, even in a vast country like Russia with a small working class, a number of parties competed for socialist allegiance.  The Mensheviks, the Socialist Revolutionaries, the Popular Socialists and the Bolsheviks had left and right wings, which at different times supported or opposed policies of the Provisional Government.  The Provisional Government was a post-Czar block of the working-class Soviets and the Russian bourgeoisie - in essence a popular front.  During the dark July days, Trotsky and Lunacharsky's organization, the Mezhraiontsy, joined the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks at the 2nd Congress of the Soviets, which was meeting while the Winter Palace was being stormed, agreed to a 'joint socialist government' with the Left SRs and the Menshevik Internationalists.  This agreement, however, fell apart, mostly due to the sectarianism of the latter. 

This is somewhat like the U.S., which has an even vaster working class made up of various economic and social strata.  It  will ultimately produce, in a revolutionary situation, an even greater number of working class parties.  So the story of October/November as told by Mieville is not a simple one of one united party taking power. U.S. Leftists who think everyone will flock to only one party in a revolutionary situation are living in denial of history and society.  This historical knowledge might be an antidote to sectarianism and small group mentality, but don't bet on it.

Leftists reading this will carefully track the activity of their 'heroes' - Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Zinoviev, Lunacharsky, Kollentai, Kamenev and others.  In this book - and the actual event - Trotsky is second only to Lenin in his role as Bolshevik advocate and organizer of the Soviet's Milrevcom military defense, which actually overthrew the Provisional Government.  Lenin is shown to be relentless in his determination not to let the moment slip away, even in the face of Bolshevik Party hesitations.  His 'April Theses' overturned the Bolsheviks (RSDLP) post-February policy of conditional support to the Provisional Government, as Lenin was an advocate of 'revolutionary defeatism' regarding the war.  Kamenev and Stalin, on the Bolshevik right at that time, were the proponents of a policy that was much like some of the left Mensheviks and SRs - critically backing the government, which was pro-war.  Lenin was even accused of 'Trotskyism' for supporting the idea of converting the bourgeois revolution into a proletarian one. (The idea of the 'permanent revolution' of course was originated by Marx.)

Mieville points out that Lenin made a mistake by 'pooh poohing' the threat of a counter-revolutionary attack on St. Petersburg by Kornilov and local capitalists.  This even in spite of the hysteria about Lenin being a 'German spy' that brought out the military right-wing in July, and put them in control of the streets of St. Petersburg. The Bolshevik Party's advocacy of the Soviet's independent military defense organization, the Milrevcom, was in response to this threat of counter-revolution - and it happened without Lenin.  It later became key to operational success in St. Petersburg, when it routed Kerensky as part of a self-defense of the working class.

In this story, Stalin is a rare presence.  Kamenev plays the role of the Bolshevik 'right opposition.'  Zinoviev hesitates at a key moment.  Kollentai is nearly always on the left, as is Lunacharsky, Trotsky and others. Bukharin was not in St. Petersburg. 

Can we learn anything from this event?  Certainly, it took place in the material context of a horrible imperialist slaughter.  Hunger and poverty were rampant.  You might say that revolution was the only way out at that moment.  The political arguments that happened still remain valid, even to this day.  But the Russian Revolution is not a simple template for the future, though many leftist nostalgists seem to think so.

Stay tuned for actual commentary from St. Petersburg/ Leninsburg/ Leningrad in November, 2017...if the visa process is not shut down.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!

Red Frog

August 2, 2017

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