Angus Reoch re-reads John Reed’s classic 1919 text 10 Days That Shook The World and discusses how the revolution eclipses those who help to create it and how theory is a product of social conditions. The essay considers Bolshevism and the future of Left theory and politics.
We live in an age of revolutions. What began with a wave of indeterminate, crowd-based uprisings in 2011, has progressed into full and continual upheaval of our present political (if not social) order. While various authors deal with the social contours of our present political upheaval, from their crowd mobilisation to democratic procedures, consensus has come about that if any moment exists to change the world, it is now. One prominent theory website has shut down with this very explicit acknowledgement, that some theoretical musings are less relevant in an era facing fascism and devastating climate change.
The relation of theory and practice is something which often comes up in debate between anarchists and Marxists, analytical and continental philosophers, and generally as foreground within which left-wing strategies and tactics are discussed. While it is important to reflect upon the philosophical dimensions of this, insofar as what ethical concerns do we express when we declare that we have to transition from theory to practice, it is also worthwhile considering in terms of world history: to what degree have revolutions been able to shape the world around them, and to what degree was this theoretically informed? How much can theory be held responsible for outcomes both good and bad?
Invariably our metaphor for revolutions stems from the two biggest in our shared imaginary: the French and Russian, both case studies of the liberal conceit that every revolution ends up bloodier than before. Yet they should not be so easily compared: what the Russian case signifies is the rise of revolutions not as an ‘authentic’ revolt writ large, as the French revolution could be seen, but as a deliberate, pre-meditated activity. Not only were revolutions increasingly possible to plan and perform in the twentieth century compared to the only-nascent Enlightenment of the eighteenth, but they were – and are – an inherent part of our political system. Social philosophy transformed from a merely idealistic assertion – ‘society should be like this’ – into a reflexive mapping of present social conditions and their possibility for subversion – ‘understanding this tendency of society, we can subvert these power relations through our collective action’. This is the rise of theory as a material and concrete factor in social orders. Not only are we capable of understanding our society in complex sociological terms, but we are in fact compelled to do so.
Cover from the German version (1922)
The October Revolution is the subject of the famously vivid and gripping Ten Days That Shook The World (1919), the crowning achievement in the storied career of American socialist journalist John Reed. While it’s tempting to dismiss Reed’s recollection as one that could only be hopelessly partial to the Bolsheviks – it is literally endorsed by Lenin himself – its status as a living, breathing document of the revolution is one which has irrevocably influenced our understanding of the October Revolution.
The typical picture of an elitist Bolsheviki coup supplanting an authentic revolution is the first one which is blown apart by Reed. When reading Ten Days, one is introduced to a whole host of characters who have been written out of history: from the Socialist Revolutionaries to the Cadets to the important unions and the less celebrated/reviled Bolsheviks. Reed’s coverage is so in-depth that his written introduction consists of political players irrelevant even by his day. The reader is soon drenched in names, acronyms and locations (this writer’s recent visit to St Petersburg greatly helped on that count), where the only choice is to sink or swim.
The most interesting facet is how it is the revolution came to be. Against the notion of the Bolsheviks being crazed ideologues; ‘communism’ was not the expressed goal of the revolution, to implement it through the state as some top-down measure. Instead, the most profound motivation expressed by the various actors is in defence of an already-existing revolution: the February Revolution, in which the Tsar was toppled and the Provisional Government installed. This initial revolution bares far more relevance to today’s revolts in Arab and European nations, of ‘democratising’ an already-existing polity. It was in defence of the brief opportunity of humanity that the post-February 1917 world provided that workers and soldiers began to coalesce around the Bolsheviks, as the only party who promised to fight for that very goal. While Marxist theory was of course deployed to understand the social conditions of Russia and to aid others in doing so, it was the Bolsheviks’ commitment to Marxism’s ideals, as a philosophy for the liberation of mankind via the proletariat, rather its philosophical content per se, which galvanised them enduring support, enough to overpower the Kerensky regime, prevent an immediate counter-revolutionary coup and win legitimacy for workers’ rule in the hearts of many.
Of course for modern audiences it is difficult to read such a text – which triumphantly ends with a comradely agreement amongst the socialist parties – without one’s mind immediately drifting towards the Russian Civil War that was to follow or the Stalinist horrors yet to come. One particular interpretation, expressed in many quarters, from liberals to anarchists, claims so many positive externalities if the Bolsheviks had not taken power – that the Russian Civil War wouldn’t have happened, that ‘socialism’ would never have become a bad word in the United States – that it says far more about today’s left-liberal yearning for an ‘authentic’ social democracy, that they’re willing to excuse the White Army and even the Nazis for their crimes because they were ‘provoked’ by Russian Communism.
These stories can only succeed because it ties together the awful atrocities performed in response to (and sometimes in defence of) communism with the act of revolution in the first place: that is, by connecting it to Lenin. Aided by Trotsky and the other Bolsheviks, Lenin had the audacity to implement communism at a time when it was predicted by none and was condemned by almost every other leftist group within Russia: none except the Left Socialist Revolutionaries would willingly cooperate in the pursuit of their own freedom. It is regarded as the founding crime by both liberal historians and left-wing revisionists, who see the roots of Stalinism, if not implicit within Leninism per se, as the tragically inevitable outcome of the October revolution. From this springs the multiple fantasies of the socialist and democratic Kerensky regime – it was neither – and the ‘unnecessary’ nature of the Bolshevik coup – as if counterrevolutionary forces were not growing stronger by the day.
This is an argument which needs a little unpacking, even in terms of just the basic history surrounding it. There’s a popular argument which regards Leninism as a deviation from the more democratic understanding of Marxism and leftist politics at the time, and it is due to this authoritarian bent that the Soviet Union became such a nightmare. This opinion has been voiced by so many platforms, but Chomsky expresses it particularly well. The argument boils down to the assertion that the Bolsheviks, particularly Lenin, expressed a highly authoritarian version of Marxism, criticised at the time by people like Rosa Luxemburg, and that their role in the October Revolution was that of an opportunistic takeover of an authentic if not fateful revolution.
Soviet Assembly in Petrograd (1917)
The problem with this narrative is that the ‘real’ revolution was not taking place. It was slowly festering: indecisive at best and inciting counter-revolution at worst. The Bolsheviks, far from being the majority party abusing a political crisis, were in fact rebelling against an apocalyptic status quo. The series of events which began the October Revolution were indeed regarded as a coup, even by themselves. They were opportunistic because they saw that there was revolutionary potential which would have been criminal to not seize. If their understanding of the state was insufficient, if other interlocutors had more sophisticated theories of the political sphere, it was not due to a theoretical chauvinism as much as it was a product of the Bolsheviks not being an aristocratic, well-educated party.
They were not the overzealous perpetrators of Marxist dogma: if anything they were the deviants from the norm, those who argued that Marxist theory could not be understood in some theoretical sense alone, that it was intrinsically linked to actually-lived class struggle. Their opponents, the Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries et al, were those who continually utilised Second Internationalist conceptions of historical progression as an alibi to continually oppose the concrete movements supported by the proletariat themselves, so far as to actually ally themselves in a direct manner with the ruling bourgeoisie to combat the proletariat even when it had actually taken state power. It is difficult to argue that the bourgeoisie need to become stronger before the proletariat can eventually win without the reliance upon a particularly stretched ‘Orthodox Marxist’ historiography.
There is one incident in particular (Footnote 4, Chapter IX, Page 352), which demonstrates the farcical dimensions of this point.
The Petrograd anti-Bolshevik papers came out next day with headlines, “Plekhanov’s temperature 39 degrees!” Plekhanov lived at Tsarskoye Selo, where he was lying ill in bed. Red Guards arrived at the house and searched it for arms, questioning the old man.
“What class of society do you belong to?” they asked him.
“I am a revolutionist,” answered Plekhanov, “who for forty years has devoted his life to the struggle for liberty!”
“Anyway,” said a workman, “you have now sold yourself to the bourgeoisie!”
The workers no longer knew Plekhanov, pioneer of the Russian Social Democracy!
What is less interesting is the decline of Plekhanov’s revolutionary zeal: Reed notes him as “now an old man, Plekhanov was extremely patriotic, too conservative even for the Menshiviki,” (p. XLII) perhaps confirming the tired, liberal cynicism that individuals inevitably become more conservative as they age. What is far more profound is the nature in which the revolution eclipses those who help to create it, discarding its own servants in the most violent of ways as it moves towards its own outcome. It is the very validation of a materialist conception of theory. As opposed to an idealist interpretation, in which theory proceeds from the fingertips of a great thinker and ceases its flow when it arrives on paper – in effect reducing theory to an act of ideation by an individual, who at most is ‘influenced’ by society, rather than a constituent part within – this materialist understanding allows us to see how theory is a product of social conditions, as actively mediated by the agency of those within, therefore endlessly evolving and contestable.
The practical upshot of this is that Marxist theory cannot be left to the Marxists. It is far less relevant what any particular critic made of the October Revolution or Bolshevism at the time, because within Marxism is the internal critique that philosophy is only relevant insofar as it pertains to the actually-existing, most particularly to class struggle. While this applies to all theory, Marxism is unique in that it accepts this as a founding methodological principle.
Earlier in Reed’s account, he encounters a conflict between a Bolshevik soldier and a young student, which so accurately portrays this dynamic that it must be quoted at length (pp. 186-187):
“Now brother,” answered the soldier earnestly, “you don’t understand. There are two classes, don’t you see, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. We—“
“Oh I know that silly talk!” broke in the student rudely. “A bunch of ignorant peasants like you hear somebody bawling a few catch-words. You don’t understand what they mean. You just echo them like a lot of parrots…I’m a Marxian student. And I tell you that this isn’t Socialism you are fighting for. It’s just plain pro-German anarchy!”
“Oh yes, I know…you are an educated man, that is easy to see, and I am only a simple man.”
After arguing over Lenin’s involvement with the Germans, the student carries on:
“I spent two years in Schlusselburg for revolutionary activity, when you were still shooting down revolutionists and singing ‘God Save the Tsar!’ My name is Vasili Georgevitch Panyin. Didn’t you ever hear of me?”
“I’m sorry to say I never did,” answered the soldier with humility. “But then, I am not an educated man. You are probably a great hero.”
“I am,” said the student with conviction. “And I am opposed to the Bolsheviki, who are destroying our Russia, our free Revolution. Now how do you account for that?”
The soldier scratched his head. “I can’t account for it all,” he said, grimacing with the pain of his intellectual processes. “To me it seems perfectly simple – but then I’m not well educated. It seems like there are only two classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie– “
“There you go again with your silly formula!” cried the student.
It is difficult to avoid concluding that today’s lookers-on would side – as did those at the time – with the ‘progressive’ student claiming his credentials to halt the revolution, as opposed to the soldier actively supporting it.
Even if the Bolshevik’s left critics were correct, that the ‘real’ revolution actually did come about in Germany (or France or Britain), given the comparative strength of its labour movement and advanced state of capitalism, it is difficult to maintain the need for silence on the part of the Russian proletariat. This widely-accepted left critique – ‘the Russians ruined it for the rest of us!’ – is ironically a far more mechanistic understanding of ‘social progress’ than even the bourgeois-sympathetic Mensheviks expressed, the kind which only the most vulgar Marxist would endorse, effectively silencing any voice or struggle until the ‘real’ revolution occurred. Even criticising the material conditions of a Russian socialist revolution – Chomsky references Marx’s pointing to the agrarian backwaters as a potentially more potent revolutionary base than Russia’s nascent working class – still bears a dismissive attitude by sanctifying the writings of Marx as opposed to the practice of Marxism as a living theory. It continually re-consigns Russia to the status of being ‘just’ Russia, back to its status as a ‘peripheral’ nation to be endlessly malleable putty in the hands of theorists from the metropolitan ‘core’ of global capitalism.
For one brief, shining moment, Russia was a nation in charge of its own destiny, actually independent from the dictatorship of capital, aristocracy and their intellectual vanguard. Repeatedly, Reed makes reference to the scruffy, unadorned and often uneducated nature of the Bolsheviki, even including their high command, who while gifted thinkers, possessed no inherited command of statecraft or governance. The Revolution was not a clean takeover by well-educated men in suits presiding arrogantly over a deluded if angry peasantry. It was an active rebellion against the deliberate uselessness of the intellectual class.
What is the upshot of our understanding of theory and practice? Amazingly, in critical theory we have not yet dismantled the naïve epistemology of theory being some hypothetical contemplation of the potential conditions of mankind, which we can only test in the practice of political action. Theory does not stop when the action starts: the very formation of our political formations is itself a dialectical progression of our theoretical will and understanding. The Bolsheviks knew that to be faithful to their goals they had to be more Marxist than Marx: that the goal of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was their only reliable political medium, as expressed in the slogan, ‘all power to the soviets!’.
If we’re going to be serious about having a left for the future, we need to understand how upheaval and revolution unfold in real time, rather than with history’s foggy glasses. If we think that our time is uniquely apocalyptic, that theory is impotent in the face of our overwhelming necessity to act, then we need a much clearer perspective, because this is not the first time humanity has faced these challenges. Every revolutionary moment is born out of great social upheaval, and it naturally produces tendencies of helplessness so great that it is natural to sense the end of the world coming around every political corner. If we are to make the right decisions – or live with the wrong consequences – we need to rethink our own conceits of history, society and philosophy. Theory is not neutral.
Angus Reoch is a Sydney-based writer, whose interests include political theory, social orders and austerity politics. He tweets on @jazzcriminal and blogs about political theory at https://sovereigntyinspace.wordpress.com/