1917–2017: 100 years after the Russian Revolution
The First World War manifested an economic, social and political crisis of global capitalism, – “imperialism” – which sparked reflection in the mass parties of the Second International on the task of socialist politics. The revisionist dispute, the “crisis of Marxism” in which Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky first cut their teeth, shaped their understanding of the unfolding revolution as a necessary expression of self-contradiction within the movement for socialism. Even the most revolutionary party produced its own conservatism, hence the need for self-conscious, revolutionary leadership to avoid “tailing” the movement.
Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky thought that leadership adequate to the revolution of 1917 required historical consciousness. They drew upon Marx’s appraisal of the democratic revolutions of 1848, in which Marx identified the historical contradiction which had developed in bourgeois society and necessitated the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Bolsheviks maintained that a "bourgeois-democratic" revolution could spark a workers' socialist revolution in Europe, subsequently allowing for a struggle for socialism. Lenin held that political forms such as “the state” and “the party” must be transformed in and through revolution. Yet the meaning of 1917 was already contentious in 1924, as Trotsky recognized in his pamphlet, Lessons of October. Trotsky would spend the rest of his life fighting “over the heads of the leaders of the Second and Third International[s]” to maintain socialist consciousness.
Whether in the Popular Fronts of the 1930’s, the Chinese Communists in 1949, or the New Left of the 1960’s, the Left sought to understand itself – both positively and negatively – in relation to the aims and outcomes of 1917. The historical consciousness of its primary actors disintegrated into various oppositions: Lenin the Machiavellian versus Luxemburg the democratic Cassandra; socialism versus liberalism; authoritarianism versus libertarianism. Meanwhile, the futility of the politics shared by Lenin and Luxemburg has been naturalized. It is tacitly accepted that what Lenin and Luxemburg jointly aspired to achieve, if not already impossible a century ago, is certainly impossible today. The premises of the revolution itself have been cast in doubt.