Sam Brown, Jonathan W. Daly, Franklin Dmitryev, and Greg Lucero
Platypus Review 104 | March 2018
On November 6, 2017, the Platypus Affiliated Society held a panel discussion at the University of Illinois at Chicago on the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution. The speakers were Jonathan W. Daly (Professor of History at UIC and author of The Watchful State: Security Police and Opposition in Russia, 1906-1917), Franklin Dimitryev (News & Letters), Greg Lucero (Socialist Party USA), and Sam Brown (Black Rose/Rosa Negra). The speakers were asked to respond to the following questions: What were the aims of the 1917 Russian Revolution? What was the self-understanding of its Marxist leadership? How has the memory of 1917 changed in the course of the 20th century? Why does the legacy of 1917 appear arrayed in oppositions? Are we still tasked by the memory of 1917 today and, if so, how? The discussion was moderated by Gregor Baszak of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. The full audio recording can be accessed online at https://archive.org/details/1917-2017APanelDiscussionuic.
Franklin Dmitryev: Rewriting history is one of the rulers’ most potent weapons. That rewriting goes on constantly, every day, fitting our experience into the ruling ideology, above all, that there is no alternative to capitalism.
The Russian Revolution has been subject to the most strenuous rewriting both by ruling class ideologues and by various tendencies on the Left, whether reformist or revolutionary.
From the proof that revolution can succeed and the working class can attain power, the magnificent events of 1917 have been turned into the fable of the straight line of historical development from Lenin to Stalin. The fable’s moral is that revolution must fail, that any attempt to overthrow capitalism necessarily ends in tyranny, that a class dictatorship of the proletariat necessarily turns into the dictatorship of one party against the working masses.
We need to understand that the February Revolution was made by the historic initiative of the masses—first of all by the women workers on International Women’s Day—and that the October Revolution was spearheaded by a party led by Lenin and Trotsky, but the revolution itself was made possible by the self-activity of the masses, supported by the masses, participated in by masses, and carried out with the explicit aim of transferring power to the soviets, which were democratic organizations spontaneously created and controlled by the masses of workers, peasants, soldiers, and sailors. The soviets in 1917 were an organizational expression of the masses in revolutionary motion. We need to understand, moreover, that the way was paved for the success of the October Revolution by Lenin’s return to Hegel’s dialectic and his break, not only politically but philosophically, with the Second International.
At the same time we need to understand what happened to that moment of liberation, the dialectic of transformation into its opposite through the counter-revolution coming from within revolution. The soviets and other mass organizations were taken over and turned into organs of the state from above, first partially due to the exigencies of the civil war started by the old ruling classes and the imperialist countries, but, with Stalin's rise after Lenin's death, they were permanently and totally statified. The direction of economic development was turned around-away from improvement of the conditions of life and labor and the involvement of the toiling masses in the management of production and the state and toward capitalist industrialization and forced collectivization of the peasants-with no freedom and no voice for either workers or peasants.
It is not only the rulers who bury this historical transformation of revolution into its opposite. The rulers and reformists want to discredit revolution altogether, but they have been aided by Stalinists who portrayed the resulting totalitarian state capitalist system as if it were socialism, as if that monstrosity were the goal we should aim for. And no solution to that rewriting can be found in the Trotskyist formula that the USSR remained a workers’ state because of nationalized property and state planning. That evades the dialectic of counterrevolution emerging from within revolution, as does the anarchist doctrine that Russia was immediately state-capitalist the day after the October Revolution. The same goes for the council communist doctrine that echoes the Mensheviks’ claim that Russia at that time could only accomplish a bourgeois revolution.
That dialectic of transformation into its opposite, that fundamental contradiction, the failure to confront the vital question of what happens after the conquest of power—this explains why oppositions are inherent in 1917’s legacy.
What is needed is to recover that legacy as a ground for revolution today, as a ground for the fundamental transformation of all social relations—establishing new relations between the sexes, breaking down racism, sexism, and heterosexism, and putting the working class in power so as to begin the breaking down of class divisions as well as the division between mental and manual labor. But 1917 is needed also as a ground for understanding what happens after revolution so that it is not transformed into its opposite, with a new bureaucracy taking power out of the hands of the masses and reinforcing the division between mental and manual labor.
This requires fighting the rewriting of history. This is not simply a question of correcting the facts, as we should understand from the past two years. Nor is the struggle over history just to establish that I am right and someone else is wrong. Rather, the issue is one of setting the truly revolutionary ground of liberation as the ground for thought and activity. That entails being grounded in a total view, that is, philosophy.
We need philosophy not in an academic sense but as a guide to action in changing the world. We need a philosophy of revolution. Recovering 1917’s legacy for today crucially includes recovering that role for philosophy. You cannot understand the Russian Revolution without grappling in detail with Lenin’s philosophical preparation for it, his rethinking and break with his own philosophical past through a return to Marx’s roots in Hegel. When World War I broke out, the Second International collapsed because most of its member parties supported the war, siding with their ruling classes. Lenin was so shocked that he thought at first that it was fake news. But then, while the war was raging and while he was struggling from exile in Switzerland to rally genuine revolutionaries around implacable opposition to the socialist betrayers, Lenin advanced the slogan “turn the imperialist war into civil war.” In the same period, Lenin spent days on end in the library studying Hegel. He found the revolutionary dialectic in Hegel, the transformation of reality as well as thought. That study set the stage for a new approach in both theory and practice, as is seen in his major works such as Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism and in his very approach to revolution from April 1917 onward.
Lenin’s “April Theses” revealed a fundamental clash about the aims of the revolution. In April 1917 even most of the Bolsheviks wanted to take part in the Provisional Government formed after the Tzar was ousted in February. Lenin, however, urged the party to demand a new International, an end to World War I, and all power to the soviets as a “commune state.” If the party rejected his proposals, he threatened to quit and “go to the sailors.” On one side was Lenin with the Bolsheviks he could persuade, demanding all power to the soviets as rule of the masses from below; on the other side were the rest of the Bolsheviks and the other parties looking to the Provisional Government’s rule from above.
It was as late as August 1917, during a counterrevolutionary phase when Lenin was forced to hide, that he elaborated in State and Revolution the theoretical necessity of smashing the state and taking power. One major obstacle to comprehending the legacy of Lenin in 1917 is what Raya Dunayevskaya called his “philosophic ambivalence,” Lenin’s own self-understanding of leadership. While Lenin’s philosophical reorganization was crucial to his leadership in the revolution, his statements regarding the centrality of philosophy were muted at best. Lenin’s writings did not reveal the depth of his break with his own past.
What he did not rethink was the vanguard party concept he inherited from the Second International. As a result, it remained a doctrine for all who called themselves Leninists, eventually becoming a fetish. It is nothing but a barrier to revolution today.
Today what demands our attention and action if we hope to realize the potentiality of revolution as an act of the historical initiative of the masses in motion from below is the intervention of the philosophy of revolution to give action proper direction. The point is to abolish the capitalist system, which is suicidally driving us toward climate chaos, nuclear war, fascism, and economic depression.
Jonathan Daly: I want to explain how the Russian Revolution actually unfolded. I agree completely with Franklin that the February Revolution was a popular movement. All sorts of people came out into the streets, including women, workers, and soldiers. Crucially, it was a soldier's mutiny. Not until the soldiers went over to the side of the revolution did the Tzar feel that he had to abdicate. This was partly due to the pressure from generals who wanted to keep on waging the war.
The Provisional Government comes to power along with the Petrograd Soviet. The Petrograd Soviet represents the workers. It is staffed at the highest levels by socialists. The Provisional Government has all members of the liberal elites along with one socialist, Kerensky. They basically all agree that the old system has to go. So the Provisional Government dismantles the police apparatus, gets rid of the political police and the regular police, empties prisons, and grants amnesties for revolutionaries who had been incarcerated. The masses themselves go out into the street and break open prisons, and all kinds of ordinary criminals come out. The Provisional Government abolishes the death penalty together with all sorts of restrictions on civil rights. In early March the Soviet issues its first order, Order No. 1, which undermines the authority in the military, because the idea is that the military officers had been despotic towards the soldiers and that the soldiers should have more rights and authority within the system—importantly, they should control weapons, and officers should have no access to weapons. All of this undermines the ability of the military to function, right? So the repressive police apparatus is gone. The military’s chief purpose is no longer to put down strikes and unrest.
One question is, how did people see this? There were a hundred different ways. Religious people want freedom of the parishes; the soldiers want their own dignity; the workers want workers’ control; and the peasants wanted to claim land—in the countryside they are chopping down trees, they are seizing estates, dividing land up among themselves in an egalitarian fashion.
Over the summer, basically the grassroots take control. But they are also in the middle of a war. There is an attempt by Kerensky to repeat the success of June 1916 with the Brusilov offensive, but it fails miserably, at which point people come out into the streets. The Provisional Government puts out information it has that Lenin has received payments from the Germans. This makes him look like a traitor and he has to go into hiding. There he writes State and Revolution where he talks about how everything is going to be run by ordinary people. Meanwhile, the economic situation deteriorates further and the war—the initial cause that launched the February Revolution—is still not going well.
Criminals are coming out into the streets to cause mayhem. People are upset. They want someone to restore order and it seems like the only people that are able to are the Bolsheviks. And they promise great stuff—peace, land, bread, all power to the soviets—the most wonderful political slogans. The people, mainly the ordinary people in the major cities, Moscow and Petrograd, support the Bolsheviks in the elections to the local town councils and to the soviets. So, by the time you get to October the Bolsheviks are riding high and, in principle, they should be able to dominate the soviet.
But Lenin and Trotsky do not trust the masses. They seize power in the name of the masses, but actually create a dictatorship. Other Marxists did not want to go along with Lenin and the Bolsheviks, because it made no sense in terms of Marxism. In terms of Marxism, you have to have stages of development and Russia was a backwards, agrarian, peasant society. How can such a society make a socialist revolution? But Lenin saw an opportunity. He saw there was chaos and that the masses were disgruntled, and he suggested it was possible to make the transition to socialism immediately. He wins over the masses and his own party members because they are upset, but, when they come to power, they are no longer sharing power with anyone other than the left Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), a splinter faction of a pro-peasant party. Then those guys leave in March 1918. Practically from the first, the Bolsheviks are creating a new political police. They reinstate capital punishment, establishing it as part of their process of governance.
They are committed through Marxism to abolishing private property and the free market, right? But, if you do that, you have to run the whole system yourself. The market functions to deal with people’s exchanges, like peasants producing grain—they bring it to market, they sell it for money, they buy a tool with that money, etc., etc. Millions of such transactions happen all the time. The market is decentralised; you do not have to run it all at the centre. With Lenin and the Bolsheviks every aspect of the economy has to be run at the centre, which creates this huge bureaucratisation. By 1922 Lenin was freaking out—What's going on? Why is there so much bureaucracy? Why do we have to sign fifty forms to get a replacement leather jacket for such and such comrade? Meanwhile, the civil war is ongoing. War communism seems to require them to confiscate grain form the peasants, causing the peasants to turn against the Bolsheviks. Even the workers turn against the Bolsheviks. No one likes them because they are not doing what they said. But they said impossible things—peace, land, bread. Anyway, Lenin expected a civil war. It is not the outside bourgeoisie that is bringing it. Lenin himself knew from the very outset that the old classes would oppose the Bolsheviks tooth and nail. So, Lenin is going in expecting a civil war. Of course, if you do not share power with anyone except the proletariat (and you claim to be their voice), how on earth are you not going to have a civil war?
So the civil war breaks out. At the same time, starting in 1919, the Bolsheviks are trying to export revolution through the Comintern, which freaks out everybody in the capitalist countries. The story of the rise of fascism and Nazism is intimately connected to this because Mussolini and Hitler looked at what was going on in Russia and they said, “Look this is a great danger, we are going to protect you from these maniacs.” This is largely what brought first Mussolini and then Hitler to power. It created the tensions in the world that led to the Cold War.
The Bolsheviks expect that they are going to transform the world. They are going to create a classless society that is going to unleash all the potential of all humanity. Marx thought that capitalism was the most progressive system ever devised, but that it was unfair. Lenin’s socialism is going to be even more progressive, unleashing still more power, wealth, and innovation. But in order to radically transform everything, they had to wipe out, push away, and undermine the other systems that existed at the time, be they traditional pre-modern systems like in Central Asia of the Soviet Union or be they capitalist countries in the West. They had to fall. That was obviously going to create tension in the world.
In 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed a lot changed. Many of my colleagues who were once so adamant about studying the Russian Revolution suddenly forgot about it. Because it failed, it was no longer interesting to them.
Is it still relevant? Well it is still relevant because so many aspects of world history since 1917 were brought into play because of the Bolshevik Revolution. That list includes, I would argue, fascism, Nazism, the Second World War, and the Cold War. One sixth of the world's land mass, Russia, which was very much on a very positive trajectory, was set backwards—really by Stalin, but by Lenin as well. Two million people die in the famine in 1921–2 and at least another five million in that of 1932–33. These were absolutely man-made famines caused by Bolshevik policies.
Greg Lucero: My two colleagues have laid out a history of the Russian Revolution. I will address some of the issues they raise, but there is still a description of the Russian Revolution that needs to be given.
Lenin is fighting the sellout Mensheviks. Of course, we have to keep in mind that Lenin has personal rage over the death of his brother, impelling him to seek revenge against the Tzar, who killed his brother. Ant then there’s the bloody repression of infantile anarchists, who, for their part, rise up against Lenin’s rapidly growing state capitalism. And then you have the power play by the power-hungry, traitorous Trotsky, who was a Menshevik until the last minute. At the same time, a little known Georgian, a bloodthirsty idiot by the name of Joseph Stalin is screwing up everything in the Caucasus. From this mess, we can see clearly and distinctly that only a state capitalist authoritarian nightmare could grow out of it.
The solution is, if everyone would have done everything different, we would have had universal peace, land, bread, an anarcho-Marxist-Stalinist commune, whatever.
You may say, that is ridiculous. And it is. What you notice is the keywords of certain sects of Marxism. And there are anarchists who are like, this was our shot, but the Marxists came around and ruined it. And what do the Marxists say? Well, it was not really a shot anyway, we had to do what we did, etc. And so the “history” of the Russian Revolution is determined by the perspective you come from.
The question is, what does the Russian Revolution mean to us today? I’m going to take a different approach, the one of Walter Benjamin. What Walter Benjamin said is that we must have hope for the sake of the hopeless. Every time I think of Donald Trump in the White House, I know how hopeless we are. The fact of the matter is, we are living in dangerous times. And then there is this fetishization of a story, and it is a story. Yes, we can talk about the power of narrative, about how we need to bring up suppressed narratives. That is fine. But what we are ultimately talking about is political action to stop the destruction that capitalism has wrought.
And what does the Russian Revolution teach us? The question is one of power. Everything else is second to that. And whatever anarchists want to say about it, they do not solve the problem. Whatever defense Trotskyists, Stalinists, the “real” Marxist-Leninists give on that, that is the start. We can want all sorts of other things after taking power, but unless a party or a group of individuals is able to make substantive change, they are wasting everyone’s time.
I would encourage anyone to look up Alain Badiou’s Being and Event. This revolution, this Russian Revolution—it is not solved today. The fact of the matter is, we select. We say, this was part of the Russian Revolution, this was not. And that is an active choice, a political decision that we make. Even today, when we say “evil Stalin,” “evil Trotsky,” “well, in the material conditions,” “Lenin did not realize this or that,” we are saying, this is valuable, this is not.
Very common today, of course, is the wholesale disavowal of the Russian Revolution. But I think it was good. Why? Well, just as a noncontroversial issue, they stomped the hell out of the Nazis. Okay, we can talk about that further elsewhere, but let’s just say that. So, that is something. The collapse of the Soviet Union means that the truth of Lenin, of revolution, of one hundred years ago—it is closed. So, where does the Russian Revolution leave us today? It leaves us with Trotskyism, Marxism-Leninism, whatever. They say they have the truth, but where is it?
So what the Russian Revolution teaches us today is these debates. The true message of the Russian Revolution is that it can arise, and it depends on the fidelity that one seeks to revolution. But this does not a body of knowledge make. No one is Lenin, right? No one here is Marx or Mao. This is something that people need to hear, people need to say. And this, the 100th year of the Revolution, is when we should take that as an absolute truth and carry on with it, building something new while remembering our history.
Sam Brown: Let me start with a quote by Aleksandr Blok, a Russian poet who witnessed the Revolution, just to give a sense of what it felt like, what it meant to be in a revolution. He said:
The duty of the artist is to visualize what’s only been pondered, to hear the music that vibrates in the turbulent air. Change everything. Renew everything. Let the falseness, the filth, and the weariness of our life disappear, and let it become free, just, pure, and beautiful. Whenever such desires which fill the souls of the people break down the dams and gush out with the force that wastes away whole sections of the shores, then we behold the revolution. Anything less, anything more moderate is rebellion, revolt, insubordination. Only this is revolution. Revolution is related to nature. It is like a blizzard or taifun, always different and always unexpected. It can drown good men, it can wash up the evil, but these are only the details. They do not change the direction of the storm or its ear-splitting din.
He wrote that in January 1918.
Here is a quote from an educated peasant in the northern provinces about similar feelings that he witnessed among peasants:
Just two or three revolutionary concepts purified by the martyrs’ sacrifice reached out with invisible hands and touched the heart of the people. Words like “The earth is the Lord’s, all land belongs to the entire people. Change everything however long it may take.” These words have struck deep roots among the peasants in our land. And on this simple word “everything” they’ve played infinite variations. It meant that no longer would there be sin, but the golden axle of the universe would take a turn toward the sun of truth, that the body would no longer bend beneath the yoke of drudgery.
These were the things that were in the air in Russia at the time. Russia had already gone through a revolution that was not successful in overthrowing the Tzar in 1905, but you could say the revolutionary sentiment, feelings about the word revolution itself, the magic behind that word, go back all the way to when the French imported it with their invasion in the Napoleonic Wars. But it was finally in February 1917 when the dams broke. It was the masses of the people that sparked the revolution. Of course, as was mentioned, it was the soldiers who guaranteed it, because, when they met the crowds of tens of thousands in Petrograd, rallying, screaming, rioting, they joined them. They were not going to be going to war anymore; they had already suffered long enough. The tzarist aristocracy was falling apart, and that is when everything began.
It happened in the countryside, it happened in the cities—there was a mass movement. The peasants took over the land and redistributed it as they had wanted to for decades. Usually they had these traditional mirs, communes, where they would sort this out in a traditional way. These traditional communes had somewhat gone away by the time of the Stolypin reforms of 1906, but 1917 brought them back in a large way. The peasants started redistributing the land themselves. They did not need any go-ahead from any government, though they were later to get it.
Here is an account from Ufa in the Ural mountains about this process when they were deciding exactly who gets to work the land in their province. This is from Isaac Steinberg:
At the end of 1917 as a member of the town soviet I participated in the first peasant conference there. Hundreds of delegates, both Russians and Tatars were rejoicing in the honeymoon of liberation. They were discussing the principles of land socialization. Impossible to describe the awesome, almost sacramental atmosphere in which the issue was debated. They approached the question of who should have the right to work the local soil. The peasants in the province of Ufa only or the peasants of all Russia? At this point a delegate named Turetsky rose to take the floor. “Why the peasants of Russia only?” he demanded. “What about the working people of other lands who suffer and languish in misery? Why not they too?” His words struck the hall like a thunderclap. Everywhere men jumped to their feet shouting “That’s right! Of course! Everyone should have the right! Let them all come! Let them work with us together!” The delegates looked at each other with shining eyes. They knew then that they were refashioning the world.
A lot of these things are confirmed, as far as the peasants go, in the Third Peasants’ Congress of January 1918 in Petrograd. Here are some resolutions that they passed, and listen at the end especially: (i) The land passes without compensation from the landlords to the use of the entire working people. (ii) The right to use land belongs to those who work it with their hands, to those, that is, who do not employ hired labor. (iii) The right to the use of land cannot be restricted on the grounds of sex, religion, nationality, or citizenship. (iv) All manner of property in land, whether minerals, waters, forests, or other natural resources, is forever abolished within the borders of the Russian Federation of Socialist Republics.
All property is abolished. And this was actually originally just meant to signify private property. But, actually, through debates they decided on property as such, including specifically state property. They abolished all property in land, at least at this congress on paper. It was a fait accompli in the countryside. The peasants were already redistributing the land. Most of the land had already been redistributed by the time the October Revolution comes around and makes it a legal reality.
Factory committees were the urban equivalents of what was going on in the countryside. Russia had a small urban population, but, nevertheless, a lot of the same communal spirit was to be found among the urban population as was to be found in the countryside. People took over the factories in cases where the management had left or had given some resistance to them forming committees. In other factories the committees would just put forth certain specifications on how the work was to be done, and in some cases they took over hiring and firing. But in any case, the idea that some single individual could have private ownership of a factory that employs thousands of people and make all the decisions about what happens there rather than people who work in it themselves was abolished. Gradually, these spread throughout the entire society. It was also almost all from the initiative of the masses. Before the Edict on Nationalization of June 1918 that the Bolsheviks came out with, five hundred factories had already been nationalized. Of all these five hundred, only one hundred had been nationalized at the command of the central authorities. Everything else had been done by some sort of local group.
Another example of mass power during this revolution is the Kornilov Affair. The Kornilov Affair was when the Provisional Government was almost overthrown by General Kornilov, who wanted to establish his own dictatorship for the sake of prosecution of the war. For that reason he conspired with supporters in Petrograd and sent troops from the front. What immediately happened was telegrams were sent out from the Provisional Government to railway workers all along the railroads. They stopped every single train that was coming in along the rail lines to Petrograd. Those trains were met by delegates coming from the city, from the factory committees, from the soviets—which I have not mentioned yet but you might know about, neighborhood- or district-based and also city-based on the higher federated level, direct democratic organs where people made decisions in a democratic way about all kinds of things—they sent out delegates to these trains and they converted the troops in many cases. In some cases the officers that were with the troops leading this attempted coup were arrested right then and there.
Just to reiterate, this is not the work of any single party. Everything that is going on between February and October, there are parties in the mix, but, at the beginning in February, the Bolsheviks are almost entirely unknown. But gradually they do become known, especially because the moderate socialists are not seen as pushing the revolution forward and are in fact seen as supporting the potential dictatorships of Kornilov and Kerensky.
In October, the Bolsheviks take power. They do it for reasons I mentioned. They establish a workers’ and peasants’ government which, as was mentioned, is nowhere to be found in Marx—it is not a Marxist idea at all. Indeed, the idea that Marxists are leading this revolution is pretty interesting, because they were also in the Provisional Government that was being overthrown. So Marxists were all over the place. I do not think they were ever consistently supporting mass power. Anyway, the Bolsheviks were able to manipulate the situation enough to get into power.
So, when the Bolsheviks come into power they made a lot of promises: “All power to the soviets!” was one of their slogans. Of course, that is not what the people ended up with. Let’s listen to what Lenin said about it. “All power to the soviets,” Lenin explained, means that the entire power of the state,
from the lowest to the highest realms, from the remotest village to every single ward in the city of Petrograd must belong to the soviets [direct democratic organs] of workers, peasants, and farm laborers. The new state will represent a higher type of democratic state, a state which, as Engels states, ceases to be a state, is no more a state in the proper sense of the word. This is a state of the type of the Paris Commune, which replaces the army and the police forced apart from the people with the armed people. The officialdom, the bureaucracy are replaced with the direct power of the people or are placed under their special control, becoming only elected deputies, ones which can be removed at the first popular demand.
So, that is what he said about it. In fact, if you think about it, he is describing a kind of anarchist society. Of course, it is not at all what he sets up. The Bolsheviks rule according to expediency, which means maintaining rigorous terror over the population and a bureaucracy.
Also a slight digression regarding Lenin’s economic vision. If we go back to the quotes I gave from the peasants and also think about the factory committees, in short, with the masses taking over the land, the factories, everything productive, with there no longer being an unproductive class of parasites leeching off of their labor, what sort of economic vision would you possibly have for such an emancipated society? Just think for a second of a vision for an emancipated economic system. Who thought the wartime economy of Imperial Germany? That was Lenin’s model, that was his favorite. There was a lot of potential there. Too bad about the Bolsheviks and all that.
FD: One thing that I wanted to bring forward is the question of the counter-revolution developing from within the revolution. That is not something that can be easily dismissed by saying that that is due to one political group or one political view, because this is actually a dialectic present in all revolutions, and, if you are not prepared for it, it is going to overtake you. Now it is very easy for people who do not really favour revolutions at all to try to discredit someone by saying “you promised too much.” The Bolsheviks promised peace. The Provisional Government was not giving it, but when the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution made a treaty with Germany, the Socialist Revolutionary party did not like the treaty, because it gave too much away to Germany. But the Bolsheviks were the ones who were ending the war immediately. So, no, it was not an unrealistic promise. Land was not an unrealistic promise. The Provisional Government was inhibiting the peasants from taking the land. After the October Revolution the gates were opened. It was already happening, as Sam said. It is not that it is led by a party. That is not my view, though perhaps you thought it was. The peasants had already been taking the land, alright? But the October Revolution released that potential, freed it from the inhibition of the Provisional Government. So, to say that they are promising too much is what happens with every revolution. You are always going to face that kind of opposition that tells you “you cannot have a revolution” or “you can only have a limited revolution. Do not try for it all.” That is one of the lessons we need to unlearn from this.
I think maybe some of the nuance that I said about the party was missed. I agree that it would be wrong to say that the revolution was led by a party. This was my criticism of Lenin's concept of the vanguard party, which I think opened some way to the transformation into opposites. One of the problems of the view, not just of Lenin but pretty generally within these Marxist parties, is that they tended to assume that the party represents the working class’s will and interest. There are times when it does, when masses of workers come into the party and make it the expression of where they want to go, but there are other times when the party moves backwards. Lenin said it himself: At a certain point, after a couple of years after 1917, the rank and file of the party is ten times more revolutionary than the leadership, and the masses outside the party are ten times more revolutionary than the party. So, consider that when you hear the myths about what Lenin represented and what Lenin thought and when people try to tell you what Marxism did or did not represent. Regarding this idea that Marxism says that you have to go through certain stages, well it was Marx himself in the introduction to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, who said the revolution could happen in Russia first, but it needed to be complemented by proletarian revolution in the West.
JD: I did not mean to say that the Bolsheviks were promising too much per se, but that, in terms of what they believed, they could not fulfil their own promises. That is to say, so long as Lenin believed that a civil war was inevitable, then, of course, peace was not possible. And, as long as he felt that war with the outside world with capitalist encirclement was inevitable in the long term, then peace was not possible. Insofar as Lenin believed as a Marxist that private property or even communal property in land was not allowable in the long run, then, of course, the peasants could not really own the land the way they wanted to. They wanted to own it themselves.
But I would say that the more important problem I have with the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik visions is the fact that the Bolsheviks did not believe in institutions. The Bolsheviks did not believe in what are called bourgeois institutions, and neither did Marx. Constitutions, parliaments, representatives, representative assemblies, civil rights, all of that stuff exists simply for the purpose of the bourgeoisie’s exploitation of the masses. If you believe that, then you have to throw all of that stuff out. Accordingly, when the Bolsheviks came to power they abolished the entire independent judiciary. Now, in our society our Constitution guarantees the autonomy, the independence of the judiciary. My colleague moments ago was talking about Trump and the dangers of Trump at this time. Now where would we be without an independent judiciary in this country? I ask you.
The Bolsheviks abolished the independent judiciary, independent trade unions, independent universities—all sorts of institutions that could limit their power. But the progressive development and narrative of Western political theory is the limiting of authority and power—checks and balances and all of that stuff. If you are a Marxist in the way that Lenin was, you could not believe in any of it because it is all a sham that you can easily dispense with. Once you dispense with it the only thing that can enable you to be right is revolutionary consciousness, which they talked about a lot: You have this thing inside of you because you are in tune with the proletariat or the zeitgeist as a result of which you are going to make the right judgments. So, basically, you are handing over all kinds of power to a band of individuals who claim that they have an intuition to understand the proletariat and what their needs and interest are and anything they do is going to be correct. But you know that is ridiculous, you know that is not possible. It would be like handing anybody, whether Donald Trump or Barack Obama or anybody else, absolute power to decide everything without any institutional constraints. That is exactly what the Bolsheviks set up. There were minimal constraints under the Tzar, but there were some. There was an independent judiciary since 1864, for instance, but all of that was swept away. So there was nothing to hold them back, nothing.
GL: Yeah, well, it is true: There are institutions that are preventing Trump from taking greater power. But those things will soon be gone: for instance, public sector workers, something that many people here care about. Well, he is using his power to appoint people—fully constitutionally—to the Supreme Court in order to make the public sector right-to-work. Now that is what Trump is doing. Yes, he has to follow certain steps, but what Mao said remains true—power grows out of the barrel of a gun.
You are right that the Bolsheviks absolutely eviscerated almost all of the institutions of Russia. They were simply the Tzar’s institutions, so they thought, “We’ll get rid of them!” But, after that, what the fuck do we do, right? And, oftentimes, they did not have an answer, but simply declared “We are revolutionary!” or “This person who we put in charge is revolutionary!” Still, we have to recognise that, at a basic level, the Bolsheviks were right. The problem, which you have expertly gauged, is where do you go from there once all these institutions are abolished? I agree that they abolished many without knowing where to go. But this was the first revolution that lasted more than two months. And what revolution is, ultimately, is one class seizing power. It is a cliche, but it is true—one class seizing and holding power over another class. What presumably most of us want here is the victory of the proletariat, i.e. working schlubs, over the bourgeoisie, rich assholes like Trump and Paris Hilton.
SB: Perhaps we can talk about Kronstadt and the grain requisitions later. Now I want to remark that the Bolsheviks did believe in one institution, the party. Like everything else, they had just a sort of monopolistic view. At any rate, I would not say they were anti-institutional. It seems at times that Lenin is building a machine to take over Europe in the name of the whole proletariat, at least that is probably what he thought in his mind. I would disagree with your notion that there is some sort of trajectory about Western liberal history, that we are progressing through the development of institutions that check runaway power in terms of checks and balances and that sort of thing. I do not think the answer lies in institutions per se or any sort of lofty constructions of liberal theorists or anything like that. These checks and balances, what they are is a distribution of power to different forces in society. And that is exactly what the revolution was setting out to achieve in the minds of many people, the distribution of power beyond anything imagined by liberal theorists before, that is, direct democracy in every workplace, direct democracy in every neighbourhood, in every building. That means that to get something done you have to actually go and talk to the people involved and make sure that they are ok with it. Similarly, with anything people want to get done around you, you have your say. We have maybe five or six checks and balances within our constitutional government. But every single individual is or could be themself a check on power—at least that is the sort of society they were aiming for.
Franklin, I want to push back on your description of Lenin’s philosophical preparation for the Russian Revolution. Just who was really making the revolution? It was millions and millions of Russian people. What did any of them, except a tiny minority, care at all what Lenin thought about Hegel? I do not think it really mattered. Maybe it gave Lenin the insight compared to the rest of the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks at the time. Maybe it allowed him to think, “Hey, we can take power now.” But that seems to be the only thing that set Lenin apart from the rest of his party. That is a great insight, but I do not think the people were waiting for it. They were ready to make things happen themselves, as is proved by everything they did without the Bolsheviks.
There was resistance to the Bolshevik dictatorship all along the line. There was Machnow and all the other partisans in Ukraine who fought off centralised soviet power and arbitrary rule by dictatorial government for a few years. Of course, there was Kornstadt. This was just after there were strikes in St Petersburg, generating an interesting problem for and regarding the workers’ government: How can you strike against your own government? For many Bolsheviks, strikes were impermissible in such a case. In fact they massacred strikers in St. Petersburg. Some Kronstadt sailors got wind of this, sent a delegation, asked about it. Eventually, they got the story, at which point the Kronstadt sailors raised their own revolt, demanding very simple things: freedom of the press, freedom of speech for working class people, parties, left wing socialists. They were completely revolutionary. They were on the side of the revolution and did not want a return to capitalism. They did not want to go back to a world where those who own property rule everything.
JD: They wanted free exchange.
SB: Yeah, they wanted free exchange in the countryside, but also no wage labor, which the New Economic Policy did allow. The New Economic Policy was something the Bolsheviks brought in a little bit afterwards, after the Kronstadt rebellion. But they had been working on it before, because they knew they were in the middle of an immense crisis, before they knew they could not sustain war communism anymore even before they could not sustain these grain requisitions anymore. So, they did need to liberalise the economy in that sense, allow free trade. And that is what the Kronstadters wanted. They wanted just some respite from an economy that had turned into a gruesome grinding machine that was turning workers into mincemeat. And what did the Bolsheviks do? They did not even allow the demands of the Kronstadt sailors to be heard. They just shot them down like partridges, as Zinoviev put it. That was the end of it, the end of illusions about Bolshevik power realizing the things Lenin had talked about earlier. So, there is resistance all along the line.
Sam, I was thinking about the excitement that you catch from the quotes from the time. You know, it is not so far from today, if you look at the Arab Spring and the democracy in the streets there. In Egypt, women said for the first time, “I feel like I’m equal here.” So all that excitement, it is not like only one hundred years ago. It is very current.
I wanted to ask Franklin about Lenin going back to Hegel. I do not think you were saying the masses were waiting for the latest that Lenin had to say on Hegel. I was also interested in how Jonathan said that other Bolsheviks did not like what Lenin was saying because they held to stage theory whereas Lenin saw that we can go straight to socialism. So, I wondered if Franklin could maybe address the question of whether and how Lenin’s political judgement was that it was not just a workers’ revolution, but a workers’ and peasants’ revolution? How did he know to say, “All power to the Soviets”? Does it relate to your point about philosophy?
One of the currents running through a lot of the presentations here is this difference between democracy from above or below. Another way this is stated was the masses vs. the party. So if it is true, for example, as Sam said, that the peasants were already making the revolution, then what sets the Bolsheviks apart as a form of political leadership? Why is the party necessary at all? And perhaps one way to historically situate this is 1917 as a crisis of democracy. First of all, there was a war, right? That is the context. The aftermath of World War I is already a crisis of 2nd International socialist democracy. And then, of course, the degeneration into Stalinism, somehow seen as bureaucracy from above. The Soviet Union was supposed to provide for the direct access of the individual to the state, itself controlled by the worker. How and why did this fail? What was the party’s role? What did Lenin think was the party’s role?
Another way of reformulating the question of above vs. below would be state vs. civil society, which gets to the undercurrent of this conversation. In a way, Sam, you were the most liberal in the traditional sense, saying that civil society itself presents checks and balances on the capriciousness of the state.
SB: The Arab Spring was very inspiring to me. As a student in 2011, it is actually what inspired me to learn Arabic. But today it is actually rather tragic because we see the results have not been so good. It seems like worldwide imperialism is very much in charge with el-Sisi in power in Egypt and with Bashar al-Assad enjoying victory in Syria. There is the exception of the Syrian Kurds, of course, who are very much worth talking about and one of the few bright lights in the world right now.
I was in Greece last summer working with Syrian refugees and I talked to them about the revolution and everything. Of course, they were all pro-revolutionary. They do not regret anything. At the same time, they are also extremely depressed. That is where we are right now. Still, it is inspiring. Their slogan—‘aīsh, hurriyya, ‘adāla igtimā‘iyya [“Bread, freedom, and social justice”]—is very similar to what the Russians were chanting in 1917.
And there are examples of things similar to the Soviets in terms of local councils taking power in various regions throughout Syria. I’m thinking right now of a Syrian anarchist by the name Omar Aziz who had been living in the United States. He was a doctor here, but he went back and theorized about these even as he was active in setting them up. He died in a regime prison in 2013. So there are these undercurrents. Unfortunately, however, it seems like everything has been taken over either by Islamists or fascists of one kind or another. This seems to be the case in wars generally, the most violent party runs things.
About the state vs. civil society, I’m an anarchist. So, I want to abolish the state. I think civil society in a broad sense can replace everything that a state does. But it is the question of what kind of civil society, what kind of population we are. We have been sort of accustomed to state rule for all of our individual lives, of course. Also, historically, the state goes back something like ten thousand years. It is going to be a long, thoroughgoing process for people to really achieve our freedom. I see the Russian Revolution as an example of where people are reaching for this freedom, yet fall back into a very ready-to-hand, available pattern of state authority. In the case of the Bolsheviks, they were able to offer people in Russia who were suffering and desperate, say, a career in the Cheka. All you had to do is one little thing, use violence against strangers. That’s what the state is. That’s what anarchists are out to prevent. Anarchists were very active in the revolution. They were active in Moscow, Petrograd, Ukraine, Siberia—they were everywhere. But they failed to stop the dictatorial power from basically abolishing local initiative—factory committees, soviets, and the rest. The ones who escaped—and there were probably hundreds in total, including at least a few dozen big names—went mainly to Europe, though some came here to Chicago. They theorized about the whole situation, forming the tradition that my group partly comes out of. Black Rose Anarchist Federation is inspired by that current, called platformism. We want to reformulate anarchism in order to focus more on organizing, on having a disciplined central organization of anarchists, though without leaders. Our forebearers among the Russian revolutionary anarchists were thinking of 1917: If we had done things differently, what could have happened? What if we had had enough propaganda on the streets, if the masses had gone to our side rather than the Bolsheviks’? Black Rose comes somewhat from that defeated tradition.
FD: With respect to Lenin and Hegel, one of the clearest examples is that, when Lenin came back from exile, many Bolsheviks wanted simply to support the Provisional Government. Lenin managed to completely turn the direction away from that and to make “All Power to the Soviets!” the Bolsheviks’ slogan. Perhaps Sam was the one who pointed out that, at the beginning of 1917, the Bolsheviks were not a very large party and were not very well known. They became well known because the other socialists compromised themselves and discredited themselves. The Bolsheviks did not come up with their slogans “Peace, Land, and Bread,” “All Power to the Soviets!” just by chance. They were articulating the demands of the masses. By the way, peace meant end to world war, that we are going to have immediate world peace. Let's not confuse what that meant.
I think you have to roll it back a little more. What was it that was so different after this encounter with Hegel? The philosophical mainstream of Second International Marxism was economic determinism. They held to stageism, that revolutions have first to go through this stage and only after that is it possible to develop to the next social stage. Lenin broke with all of that. He saw that much more emphasis needed to be placed on the subjective element, not in the sense of some Maoist voluntarist subjectivism without basis in objectivity, but subjectivity that is genuinely rooted in objectivity. That supplied the basis for Lenin’s completely new understanding of imperialism, that it is not just an economic stage but a transformation into its opposite of part of the economic basis of capitalism, from competition to monopoly. It means the transformation into its opposite of part of the working class into an aristocracy of labor entangled within this imperialism. And it means also new subjects in terms of national liberation movements that should not just be written off in the way that, for example, Rosa Luxemburg or Bukharin or Pannekoek would do.
Lenin’s dialecticism can also be seen in the trade union debate, when actually it was people that Lenin was arguing against within the Bolsheviks that said, “Why should workers want to strike against their own workers’ state?” To which Lenin replied, “You’ve got to be concrete, you’ve got to be dialectical and recognize that, in fact, workers need to be able to defend themselves against their own workers’ state.” Lenin championed that viewpoint against people like Trotsky and Bukharin.
It's too tempting to oversimplify aspects of what was going on in the revolution. You do not understand it if you do not see it as this dialectic of opposing forces. Not just clashing, but things turning into their opposite in themselves. It is the great example of how Marxist government can, so to speak, turn into its opposite. To postulate that a straight line runs from Lenin to Stalin is to fail to understand that. Just as in the Spanish Revolution, some anarchists felt they had to become part of the government. It was not because they wanted to betray their principles. They just felt like that was what they were for. There were exigencies of the situation. So, a tale told about what happens after the Russian Revolution without putting due emphasis on the exigencies caused by the civil war is just wrong. You cannot understand it that way. It misrepresents what actually happened. Thus, to equate the famine that happened at the end of the Civil War with the one that Stalin caused by forced collectivization is historically quite wrong.
JD: To promise an end to the war, knowing full well that you are going to be plunged into an equally gruesome and probably more worldwide war than the one that you were in is, I would submit, misleading. As far as the famines of 1921–22 go, they are similar insofar as, in both cases, grain confiscations caused peasants to plant less, which resulted in death. Now it's true that there was poorer weather in 1921–22. That was not purely governmental, whereas in 1932–33, there does not seem to have been any problem with the weather. That was, it seems, purely governmental.
As so far as the whole question of anarchism, I'm very sympathetic to the idea. I think that among the most successful examples of anarchistic polity in history was early America because you really did not have an external state that was able to dictate. That is I think why the American Revolution was successful. Because these guys were used to running local government themselves. When de Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s, he saw this. It was still there, especially in New England. People were organizing associations and clubs and they were running everything themselves. No one was telling them how to organize their lives, they simply did it locally. That's civil society, which is so important. So, when I talk about the limits on power, civil society is a part of that. And the more developed the civil society is, the more people are used to running their own lives, the better.
The people in Russia were fantastic. They were trying to run their own lives for the first time. Unfortunately, they were doing so in a context that was very unfavorable. It was a world war; it was Bolsheviks with a radical vision of transforming everything. And their transformative proposal hinged on the revolution breaking out in Europe, just as Marx had said was a precondition. Revolution in and out of Russia, that's certainly what the Bolsheviks expected or hoped for. They kept watching what was happening, all the revolutionary stirrings in Germany, and kept praying that the revolution would happen. Unfortunately, it did not. So the revolution in Russia could not advance, at which point Stalin comes up with the idea of socialism in one country. I won’t argue like Stalin, but I will say that, when you are dealing with power, when you are dealing with a country with one hundred and fifty million people and eleven time zones, one sixth of the earth's landmass, that’s a huge amount of resources to be fought over. Unless there is something that can arbitrate that, something that can prevent all of that massive power flowing into a few hands, unless you can stop that, you are fairly doomed. It seems likely that once the Bolsheviks destroyed all of those civil society institutions—because civil society was not allowed to persist under the Bolsheviks—that opened the door for Stalin who was then able to do anything he wanted. He can take millions of peasants, throw them into boxcars, dump them in the middle of nowhere, and tell them, “Okay, set up your camps and run your lives.” He can then force everyone else into collective farms, where no one cares about it, because their heart is not in it because they do not own anything, etc. He can actually kill without trial. He executed close to a million people in the years 1937–38. That's why to say, “Oh well, Trump is going to get rid of the trade unions”—that may not be a good thing, but there's so much more that could happen if power were truly concentrated. That's one thing you want to avoid. You do not want power to get concentrated into a set of hands based upon, in this case, an ideology that claims that you can build everything beautifully and wonderfully. Maybe. But, honestly, it is much better to do it step-by step and let people learn how to organize their own lives. And it so happens that in North America white people, anyway, didn’t have people breathing down their necks. And so, in America, they were able to set up a fairly successful system of self-government.
GL: To quote one of my favorite subjectivist, idealist Maoists, Mao says power grows out of the point of the gun. Now, the point of that is not, “Do what we say or we'll kill you” (although that is a very persuasive argument). The point is, at the end of the day, adjudication among any given system is ultimately a question of power. Now, power that grows directly out of the barrel of the gun is, of course, the crudest, most violent sort of power possible. And it would certainly be best if that is not the way that we adjudicate things among us. But in the case of any successful revolution the question of power arises.
It was said, well, we have civil society… at least for white people. There it is admitted. Do you know what the American “democratic experience” looks like? It looks like rape, plunder, and pillage. Of course, there was plenty of rape, plunder, and pillage in the Russian Revolution as well. The key is (and this is the problem we have to deal with): How do we build the system to fight people who are doing that for ends that we do not agree with? Basically, how the fuck do we stop Donald Trump? That's the exemplar, the most grotesque, clear sign of it. And then the question is, how do we reach agreement—a majority agreement, preferably—about what's fair? We have all sorts of different ideologies, all sorts of different views. But here in this room, we can agree that some things just do not fly, like exploitation.
What does the Russian Revolution teach us? Above all that we are not going to agree. But it's good that we have events like this to make clear our differences, to discuss even where we disagree. So, I want to thank the Platypus Affiliated Society—I appreciate this discussion. It's important and needs to be had.
Finally, the question that the Russian Revolution forces us to ask is, What do we do to stop the people who are hurting and killing us? It may be Leninists, or Stalinists, or, if you are lucky, Maoists that gain power. But we have to ask this question because, right now, it is Trump. We need to find unity to a certain extent so that we can fight them. |P
Transcribed by Gregor Baszak, Efraim Carlebach, and Kevin Dong
 This quotation combines statements from Lenin’s “Speech Delivered at a Meeting of Soldiers of the Izmailovsky Regiment April 10, 1917,” “The Dual Power,” and “The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution,” Lenin’s defense and exposition of the “April Theses.” All three writings are from April 1917. The speaker is quoting these sources from G. P. Maximoff, The Guillotine at Work: Twenty Years of Terror in Russia (Chicago: The Alexander Berkman Fund, 1940), 22.Sam Brown, Jonathan W. Daly, Franklin Dmitryev, and Greg Lucero