On the background of this year’s 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution Jiří Dolejš contemplates the role of revolutionary turmoil and its impact on the human society as well as the requirements under which a real change can be achieved.
This autumn the world will commemorate the round anniversary – 100 years since the 1917 revolution in Russia which has undoubtedly contributed to the transformation on a global scale. It would be a pity if this event will be evaluated just with the help of shallow and pseudo-historical propaganda clichés. The mere ritual worshiping to the a priori progressivity of the revolutionary pathos is actually strikingly similar to the opposite ritual hatred of revolutionary terror perceived by some as a consequence of attempts of mob’s manipulations by the power-hungry perverts. Hence let us try to look critically for meaning and lessons of this historical event.
There is a lot of unorthodox literature on this subject that does not turn away from problems. First of all there is a tradition of Trotskyist radical anti-bureaucratic opposition. Many intellectuals of Marxism shared with it their criticism of Stalin’s degeneration of socialism while being however rather divergent in terms of positive resolutions (for example, Záviš Kalandra in the 1930s or Petr Uhl in the times of normalization).
From the communist publications of post-1989 period it is impossible to ignore the “New Reading of Marx” by Miloslav Ransdorf (1995) who regarded the Russian revolution as an attempt to create an island of the future in the midst of the present. He considered it, however, to belong to the category of events that have been plowing the path for the new social formation and to be the revolution that has failed to manage its own necessary rationalization, its own “thermidor” – and for this reason has not created an adequate force necessary for building the social formation of a higher type.
We have in our list, of course, the traditional Masaryk’s “World Revolution” (1925) that regarded the revolution as part of historical progress for entirely different reasons than the Marxists. The key points of it rested with the conflict of moral democracy with reactionary tyranny and with a different view of a mix of revolutionary and reformist processes. The issue of civilizational transformation of social structures and interests has been addressed, for example, by the political philosopher Jaroslav Šabata who responded to it with his concept of the new-democracy revolution (Marx and Havel, 2013).
And what does the Russian revolution mean for today’s Russia? Many people there tend to downplay the dimension of the Bolshevik social experiment preferring to highlight the empire-style achievements of this chapter of the “Great Russian Narrative” instead. President Putin was heard to declare that Lenin’s teachings ultimately led to the destruction of the roots of historic Russia and eventually to the break-up of the USSR. And to express the desire to regard this year’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution as an event that will lead to the reconciliation between the descendants of monarchist White Guard and Bolsheviks Red Army adversaries.
I see a sense in a substantive debate about the laws of revolution that will have to be freed both from the messianic vision of historical necessity as well as from a phobia of inevitability of bloody terror for revolutionary changes. The legitimization of revolutions can not only have a formally legalistic but also radically democratization framework. And as Albert Camus has said, revolutions had been often carried out through violence but always kept going via dialogue. Through the dialogue of various motives of the modern strive for human emancipation.
In the nature as well as in the society the process of development is not carried out entirely through the gradual change. Occasionally the breakthrough, jump events do happen bringing forth the major transformations of a system layout. A historical subject of a social change pursues no longer just a rebellion or revolt of the oppressed against the dominant order. It neither targets just a power coup intending to replace the ruling elites. This subject has the ambition of establishing a whole new better order or at least restoring the lost one.
In the ancient times the various “bellum civile” have emerged mainly from the religious quarrels. On the threshold of modern times, however, the base shakers have openly formulated the demand for a creation of a secular society without feudal privileges. The first modern great and successful civil revolution was the American one. The enlightened Revolutionary Declaration of American Independence in 1776 conceived by Thomas Jefferson confirmed the right of people to an uprising against an unfair government and the vision of political freedom that was based upon new political institutions and freedom in the public space.
The reference to the Great French Revolution is rather more often used to different theoretical comparisons. The text of the revolutionary Marseillaise of 1789 contains the words “contre nous de la tyrannie”. However, the fall of the French monarchy has brought not only the famous “liberty, equality, fraternity” but also the focus on social inequalities of that time. The revolution has resulted both in the temporary phases of the Jacobin dictatorship and the “thermidor” one. The latter is perceived in the revolutionary theory not just as a phase of a historical reversal but rather one of getting rid of utopia and of revolution’s rationalization perceived as a longer-term socio-cultural process.
An unorthodox theory of revolution brings a typology of revolutions. An important point of it is an attitude toward the legitimation of revolutionary acts’ strategy. French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville describes, for example, the preconditions necessary for a revolution and defines political, social or religious types of revolutions (L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution, 1855). Karl Marx has defined the bourgeois and proletarian types of revolutions and called them the “locomotives of history” (Die Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich, 1850). It has to be noted that there are also revolutions that carry the national emancipation and the anti-colonial dimensions.
The Russian Revolution had two major dimensions from the point of view of the historical experience of that time. It has overthrown an outdated and reactionary Czarist regime while bringing at the same time the vision of a new beginning, a completely new historical alternative of a non-capitalist character. Many do accept only its first phase (February 1917) and consider it an unrealized hope for a Western-style parliamentary democracy that would have allowed the co-habitation of social-democrats (Mensheviks) and socialist-revolutionaries next to the Bolsheviks. They tend to regard the Red October of 1917 only as a coup-driven destruction of democracy by the Leninist Bolsheviks, and pretend not to notice the absolute inability of then-in-charge Interim government neither to handle population’s demands for peace and bread nor to initiate the processes of social changes in the environment of strong external pressures.
The cause of October Revolution, however, was not just the rather limited success of the February Revolution. It was also a question of interests arising from specific social situations and experiences that have influenced the debate by the basic premise of the Bolsheviks who assumed that the democratic revolution was just the precursor of the socialist revolution and the revolution in Russia was just a precursor of the world revolution. That’s why the echoes of the “Aurora” shots have fascinated socialists and revolutionaries around the world. In history, despite the fact that Napoleonic army has failed to export the new bourgeois freedoms on their bayonets to the rest of Europe the values of the French Revolution have resonated with the regional contradictions and interests and have ultimately changed the world. The Russian version then showed that such a cultural transfer can have different dimension.
The main consequence of the events of 1917 was the gradual emergence of a powerful Soviet bloc. The rest of the world has responded to this change of the global order through dismounting of the old colonial system and the emergence of the Western model of the welfare state. The Soviet bloc kept expanding into the world’s socialist system but has eventually collapsed due to the acceleration of its internal dysfunctions. And even the socialists shall ask themselves if it was not due to a certain systemic heritage, the immature formative content of the Russian Revolution. Let’s recall that Marx originally thought that the success of the social, not just the political revolution is closely related to the degree of civilization’s maturity.
Nowadays it is difficult to distinguish between the years 1917 and 1989. At the beginning the idea of the Soviets, i.e. Councils of workers, peasants and soldiers was the basis of the people’s power. The power of the Soviets, however, eventually fell into captivity of a bureaucratic etatism. Professional revolutionaries had no choice but to plug the revolution-created gaps in civic-society structures thus gradually converting the dictatorship of the proletariat into a state-party dictatorship.
The regime’s official ideology justified the efforts for the conservation of its power grip by the dangers and threats of the imperialist encirclement. It insisted on the correctness of the concept of the weakest link that meant that socialist changes actually needed to be implemented and tested in a relatively backward country. However, the question is whether this “development gap” had not genetically impeded the entire world socialism system that has eventually collapsed in its country of origin after a vain attempt of “perestroika”.
This debate also includes the question whether Uljanov-Lenin has actually contributed to the fact that the Russian revolution eventually failed to functionally dominate the conquered historical terrain (even the socialist revolutions have their “thermidor” phases). His experiment with a “new economic policy”, however, suggests that he was well aware of the problem and tried to address it. Another opinion makes the subsequent Stalinization accountable for not being able to remove the political government of bureaucracy over people.