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The Russian Revolution and its relevance today

Tue 31st Jul 2012

In 1920 Lenin expressed his views on the international significance of the Russian Revolution [Chapter 1 of "Left Wing" Communism an Infantile Disorder]. A lot of water has gone under the bridge in the last 92 years. Are any of Lenin's views on this issue relevant today?

Well, there is a big problem with this chapter. Lenin is still waiting for a revolution in the advanced countries to come to the aid of the Russian Revolution. Despite Russia's industrial backwardness at the time, Lenin thought that three years after 1917 there were some fundamental features of the revolution that were not local, national, or Russian which would be of interest to revolutionaries in the advanced countries.

He said that "certain fundamental features" of the Russian Revolution have significance for "the international validity or the historical inevitability of a repetition, on an international scale, of what has taken place" in Russia. What could he have meant?

First, Lenin speaks realistically admitting that the people should not have an exaggerated view of the significance of the Russian features since once the Revolution spreads to the advanced countries Russia will most likely "cease to be the model and will once again become a backward country." Secondly, he takes a long term view, since not only did no advanced country have a revolution at the time, but the Russian model as such became defunct some seventy one years later, perhaps ultimately as a consequence?

What were the features that Lenin thought had international application? Note that he doesn't mention all of these features in this chapter-- he saves them for later in the work-- but we can survey his basic rationale for holding some of the Russian features to be of universal interest.

It is difficult today to accept the primary thesis of this chapter: which is "it is the Russian model that reveals to ALL countries something-- and something highly significant-- of their near and inevitable future." This sentence needs revision. The "near" has to be removed and the "inevitable" is too deterministic and has to go as well-- replaced perhaps by "possible." The "ALL" is too sweeping so it will be replaced by "some." We don't need the parenthetical statement either. So we arrive at "it is the Russian model that reveals to some countries something of their possible future."

While it was perfectly natural for Lenin in 1920 to be hopeful and enthusiastic about the Revolution, I believe it is the revised thesis above that is actually correct and can be defended even today, proving to be the key to a contemporary understanding of Lenin's "Left- Wing Communism" and the enduring significance of the Russian Revolution.

There is a second thesis Lenin puts forth in this chapter which has to be abandoned all together: which is that the international working class has an advanced segment that, by means of a "revolutionary class instinct" (not by a conscious reasoning process) understands his first (unrevised) thesis. The most we could grant to this idea today is that there are advanced segments in the international working class but their ideas are not instinctual, they are the result of both their life-conditions (practice) and education and study of working class history and the nature of the world economy (theory). It is also the case that "advanced" workers are not all of one mind. Workers may understand intuitively (instinctualy) that they are being 'screwed' by the boss-- but that is not a sufficent basis on which to build a revolutionary movement.

What evidence did Lenin have on hand for these theses? First the achievements of the revolution itself made him unduly optimistic at the time of the writing of this work. Second, he was impressed by rereading an old article in Iskra (from 1902) by his one time nemesis the renegade Karl Kautsky. The article, "The Slavs and Revolution", penned by Kautsky in his pre-renegade days, made several points that impressed Lenin as being highly relevant.

Here are three sentences from Kautsky's article which must have struck Lenin as prescient. "At the present time it would seem that not only have the Slavs entered the ranks of the revolutionary nations, but that the center of revolutionary thought and revolutionary action is shifting more and more to the Slavs." What a difference a century makes! No one today would think of the Slavs as a center of revolutionary thought or action. They may have made an heroic effort in the last century but that effort ultimately failed.

"The new century has begun with events which suggest the idea that we are approaching a further shift of the revolutionary centre, namely to Russia." That turned out to be correct but was unsustainable. Finally, after noting that in the revolutionary actions of 1848 "the Slavs were a killing frost which blighted the flowers of the people's spring" [the role played today by the Americans], Kautsky concludes, "Perhaps they are now destined to be the storm that will break the ice of reaction and irresistibly bring with it a new and happy spring for the nations."

Well, they tried-- but who today plays that role-- perhaps only the Cubans come close, still inspiring Third World peoples and movements, but it is a great burden to place on the shoulders of a small nation.

So what can we conclude about the Russian Revolution today? In this chapter Lenin thought the main feature of the revolution that would apply to other countries in the future was that it would be a model for revolutionaries to look to until more advanced economically developed capitalist countries had their own revolutions which would push the Russians into the background. He also thought that other countries would see their futures mirrored in the Russian Revolution. Let us hope he is wrong since what we see is that the Russians fought and struggled for seventy years to build Socialism, only to end up with Putin as leader.

Nevertheless, the ideals of a Communist future and a world free of human exploitation and war still motivate millions of people around the globe to struggle for a better world. In that sense Lenin and his revolution will continue to inspire working people and their allies in the class struggle.
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