Lessons from a road trip down Route 1917

December 22, 2017

Todd Chretien, editor of Eyewitnesses to the Russian Revolution, spoke around the country this fall about the story of the revolution and its meaning today. With 2017 nearly over--at last!--he considers the importance of 1917's legacy as we confront the struggles to come.

AMONG THE many other high crimes and misdemeanors of which Donald Trump and his cronies are undoubtedly guilty during 2017 is the sad fact that Nazis crowded out the mainstream and liberal media's coverage of the rising influence of socialism in the U.S.

This, together with Trump's talent for sucking all the air out a room (or entire country), has meant that historical and political debates about the Russian Revolution of 1917 have been relatively muted, even in this year of its 100th anniversary.

The New York Times did run some interesting (Tariq Ali on Lenin) and not-so-interesting (Harvey Klehr on American Communists) articles on 1917.

The left and progressive press ran more extensive and important discussions and debates. However, from a mass consciousness point of view, Hitler got more press this year than Lenin.

This isn't at all because the interest in socialist ideas and organization has waned since the s-word re-entered mainstream discussion recently--most of all, but not entirely, because of Bernie Sanders' left-wing campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination.

Workers in the streets of Petrograd to demand an end to the war during the February Revolution
Workers in the streets of Petrograd to demand an end to the war during the February Revolution (Wikimedia Commons)

Far from it, Trump's rise to power has, if anything, spurred on an important radicalization among tens of thousands of young people turning to socialism.

We might even say that there is a certain political hardening among a significant minority of these people, who are looking--even as they continue to admire his denunciations of millionaires and billionaires--beyond Sanders' relatively tame social-democratic beliefs to a more revolutionary reckoning with the system.

I was very curious about this hypothesis when I began a 20-city tour this fall to speak about the Russian Revolution. Here's a few of the things I learned.


IN NOVEMBER 2015, at the Howard Zinn Book Fair in San Francisco, Anthony Arnove of Haymarket Books convinced me to work on a book that would eventually become Eyewitnesses to the Russian Revolution.

Eyewitnesses, as the title implies, relies on firsthand accounts from participants to trace the historical arc of the revolution, as well as the conflicts between some of the principal individuals and political parties (you can read Elizabeth Terzakis' smart and generous review for SocialistWorker.org here).

It's certainly not comprehensive or groundbreaking research, but I like to think of it as a handy companion to China Miéville's October, published this year by Verso, which I plainly encourage you to give as a gift for all the radicals on your holiday list.

This was my excuse for a whirlwind late autumn of meetings about the Russian Revolution. Altogether, around 1,000 people attended. I think that's a small--although not very small--percentage of the people who are interested in the revolution, not for the sake of its value as a historical "curio," as Miéville put it, but as a critical battle in working-class and socialist history that contains compelling lessons for today.

My back-of-the-envelope math suggests that while millions of people in the U.S. may sympathize with socialist ideas, there are something like 50,000 who have directly affiliated to one or another socialist formation (lopsidedly, the Democratic Socialists of America) or are considering doing so. And there are perhaps 5,000 activists who constitute the day-to-day, organizational backbone of the socialist movement (this time, not so lopsidedly spread between several socialist groups or currents).

Of these numbers, only a small minority has had the opportunity before now to study and discuss the Russian Revolution--though that segment has grown significantly, thanks mostly to Miéville's book.

No doubt, members of the International Socialist Organization--the publisher of Socialist Worker--and people interested in our group constituted a very high percentage of people attending meetings at which I spoke. And I think it's fair to say that we in the ISO tend to place a much greater stress on the centrality of the Bolshevik legacy than many others on the left. So my sample is surely somewhat skewed by degree, although, I believe, not by kind with respect to participants in the new socialist movement.


THE MOST important lesson I learned is that most young people interested in socialist revolution as a means to banish capitalism and save the planet today don't reflect the same truism of previous generations of the left--that a person's attitude toward 1917 told you a lot about how they approached trade unions, national and racial liberation, gender equality, imperialism and so on.

Today, I think we have to say that 1917 has faded as a political touchstone--to, in my mind, a dangerous point.

Some would celebrate this. Connor Kilpatrick and Adaner Usmani do so in their article "The New Communists" in the new issue of Jacobin magazine. They proclaim that "it's time to stop worrying about old answers to old questions" and start worrying about "the ones working people are asking."

They heap scorn on revolutionary socialists who have fought to survive neoliberalism to the best of their abilities. Apparently, the sum total of the international left's efforts--tens of thousands of people from France to Argentina, from Mexico to South Africa, from Brazil to Greece, from Pakistan to the U.S.--is nothing more than an unhealthy proclivity to "fantasize" about the working class' potential to overturn the "advanced capitalist societies and sturdy, capacious states" against which we struggle.

Now I am usually generous with political opponents. But this conclusion doesn't even pass the smell test. Despite portraying themselves as prophets of the new, Kilpatrick and Usmani have advanced a rotten old argument.

A better approach, in my opinion, is to recognize that socialists have multiple tasks. Of course, we have to fight for reforms today, but that's not the only thing we have to do. We also have an opportunity--and maybe a duty--to, paraphrasing Shakespeare's Mark Antony, learn from the Bolsheviks, not to forget them.

There is a literal treasure trove of theoretical, strategic and organizational (never mind cultural, psychological, military, and artistic) teachings that can be drawn from the experience of the Bolsheviks in Russia, before and after the 1917 revolution.

It goes without saying that this is true of myriad other struggles and organizations, but 1917 has the advantage of being the only test case that merged: a) genuine mass struggle from below, with b) a politically revolutionary party of workers, sailors, soldiers, peasants and intellectuals, while c) overthrowing the ruling class, and d) instituting a new revolutionary state based on democratic control of society by the oppressed and exploited.

Against this, Usmani and Kilpatrick prefer that we "fantasize" about a Lenin of their own invention--based on a quote about the New York Public Library as an example of what a "modern, democratic society" [sic] could provide.

If Lenin used the best of Ben Franklin's legacy to point out the worst of Tsar Nicholas II's reality, this hardly means he had changed his revolutionary spots. Just five weeks later, in the very same publication, Lenin wrote, "The truth that reforms are possible only as a by-product of a movement that is completely free of all the narrowness of reformism has been confirmed a hundred times in world history."

Lenin is simply paraphrasing Rosa Luxemburg here, but it's still good advice.


IF WE reach out to the new generation of socialists, here are the sorts of questions I heard all across the country:

How do we prevent liberals from co-opting revolutions and political movements?
-- Is there a difference between the police and the military?
-- Do we need a party, or parties, to win a revolution?
-- There aren't any peasants in the U.S. today, so are workers the only oppressed class?
-- Why didn't the state whither away like Lenin expected after 1917?
-- Why did the Bolsheviks lead the revolution instead of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries?
-- Russia had such a weak economy, so could a revolution happen in the U.S.?
-- Does social media mean we don't need to put such an emphasis on political organization?
-- How does globalization change our tasks compared to 1917?
-- What happened to the workers' councils, or soviets, after 1917?
-- Will we need our own 1905--a failed revolution that set the stage for a victorious one?
-- Is violence always part of revolutions?
-- Why didn't the revolution spread beyond the Russian Empire?
-- What's the relationship between socialist revolution and national liberation?
-- Couldn't we make a new revolution without referring to all this old stuff?
-- Could unions today become like the workers councils?
-- What's the difference between dual power and a powerful social or working-class movement?

That list could go on and on, but the point is this: I found that as soon as new socialist activists get the opportunity to enter into the world of 1917, they immediately understand that their Bolshevik (and Socialist Revolutionary and Menshevik) ancestors are not all that different from themselves, nor hard to comprehend. If nothing else, they were mostly young people, too.

And the world in which the socialists of 1917 struggled--one filled with war, racism, sexism, discrimination of all kinds, poverty and brutal exploitation--is not really all that different from the one we live in today.

We have iPhones--and they haven't ended world hunger. Power is still power. Wealth is still wealth. War is still war. Racism is still racism. Sexism is still sexism.

If the Bolsheviks have lessons to teach a new generation, then we should not let 100 years of capitalist ideology and anti-communism dictate what we can or cannot study.

Whether or not we choose to do so matters, but not because our small forces can change history all on our own. Karl Marx argued that socialism is, before all else, the self-emancipation of the working class. No one can conjure mass struggle into being.

But what revolutionaries do matters. Albert Rhys Williams, a U.S. journalist on assignment in Russia in 1917, captured an important truth about the role that an informed, disciplined, confident and organized left can play in the battles to come. "The revolutionists," Williams wrote, "did not make the Revolution. But they made the Revolution a success."


ONE OF the highlights of the tour was speaking at the Howard Zinn Book Fair in San Francisco alongside Jacobin founding editor Bhaskar Sunkara, who is also a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Sunkara's presentation was based, at least partially, on the article "The Few Who Won" that was subsequently published in Jacobin.

In clear distinction from the dismissive attitude of the liberal media, Jacobin's website ran a yearlong series of articles examining the strengths and weaknesses of the Russian Revolution and its political legacy.

My favorite part of this meeting was that it confirmed my sense that many new DSA activists are little different than their peers in around the ISO and other socialist groups when it comes to the Russian Revolution.

Most begin with relatively little knowledge about 1917 itself--how could it be otherwise in the good old U.S. of A.?--a healthy skepticism that something went terribly wrong to end up with Stalinism, and, despite it all, a gut feeling that they've been systematically lied to their whole lives about the Bolsheviks.

Aside from a weird guy who threatened us with an ice pick (watch the Facebook livestream if you don't believe me), I thought the meeting was excellent.

Clearly, we disagreed about various points: how to describe the balance between the Bolsheviks' strategy and the force of circumstances; whether or not the Menshevik Internationalists could have played a more constructive role and why they didn't; if a weakness in Lenin's conception of political structure in the soviet state led to Stalinism or if the brutality of imperialist invasion and counterrevolution were the main culprits.

The open exchange of opinion even produced some surprises, I think. For instance, I agreed that the retributions carried out after the defeat of the anti-Bolshevik Kronstadt Rebellion were a stain on the revolution.

And Bhaskar--the editor of a magazine named Jacobin, after, you know, the French kind--stated he would even defend a monarchist political party's civil liberties after the revolution. I thought that was genuinely, even dialectically, hilarious. I also think it was a joke, but I'm honestly not really sure!

All of this is, I believe, fruitful. It trains people to think and breaks us out of our U.S.-centric and in-the-moment blinders. But debates about purely historical questions are not the most enlightening.


THE HISTORICAL dispute I found most relevant in this meeting is one that I think has contemporary implications. It will have to be settled in practice over the coming years, but its outlines are worth sketching out (as I've done previously).

In both his "The Few Who Won" article and his talk in San Francisco, Sunkara suggests that German socialist leader Karl Kautsky had developed "distinct ideas" that set him apart from both the right-wing, pro-war wing of European social democracy, and its revolutionary left, led by Lenin and others, like the Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg.

The trouble is that Sunkara's explanation for Kautsky's failure to put these ideas into practice--a failure repeated by Julius Martov, leader of the left-wing Menshevik Internationals in the midst of the Russian Revolution--mirrors the very same weakness in Kautsky and Martov's strategies: Their conception of socialist revolution relied on capitalism being a relatively stable system.

Martov hoped for a democratic alliance between the Bolsheviks and even pro-war "socialist" parties to allow for democracy to take hold within the Russian Empire, and Kautsky, who hoped capitalists would see starting a world war as irrational (for their own class interests), believed returning to a capitalist "peace" would permit the linear growth of the socialist movement to resume under "normal" conditions.

Sunkara simply notes that both failed to translate their theories into strategies to confront the crises of their day, but without an explanation of why.

It seems to me that this is an important discussion to pursue. In the end, it wasn't simply that Lenin looked to the Paris Commune for a "spirit that spawned the communist movement," as Sunkara offers. Rather, Lenin was entirely right to expect that capitalism "normally" produces the most abnormal conditions: war, crises, disasters, coups, fascism, etc.

And, for god's sake, in our own time: Trump!

Any socialist strategy that doesn't prepare for such "surprises" runs the risk--as both Kautsky and Martov realized too late--of being caught unawares. And in our line of work, the price of those sorts of mistakes is measured in Pinochets and Francos, to say nothing of Tsiprases and Mitterrands. More than that, socialist strategy must be prepared to use such disasters for its own purposes.


SUNKARA'S ARTICLE and presentation focus on the historical aspects of this debate, but others in Jacobin's Russian Revolution issue present a case for what this might mean today.

For example, Vivek Chibber's "Our Road to Power"--the title itself is a shout-out to Kautsky--asserts that "our strategic perspective has to downplay the centrality of a revolutionary rupture and navigate a more gradualist approach."

This is a wonderful example--as I'm sure Chibber would agree--of how a person's attitude toward historical and theoretical questions directly shapes their contemporary positions. Clearly, the "old answers to old questions" aren't as irrelevant as they may appear on the surface.

Engels once observed that American workers were blocked by the capitalist monopoly on political parties from slowly accumulating power, and their movement would therefore "burst out with such irresistible force, would spread with the rapidity of a prairie-fire, would shake American society to its very foundations." This seems like sage advice all these years later.

If 2017 presented both unexpected atrocities and inspiring resistance, it only bolstered my conviction that the ghost of 1917 remains a powerful force--for the moment felt most acutely as an absence.

For if capitalism cannot be trusted with the future of the planet, then socialism will have to replace it. The means and methods by which this transformation takes place will rely upon and preserve elements from the past, combined with sensibilities, victories and discoveries from our present and future struggles.

This generation and the one that comes after it will not inscribe Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg (or Martov, for that matter) on their banners. Rather, they will raise up their own popular leaders and slogans.

Yet the activist core of our new revolutionary movements--its cadre, to use an old/new term--will be much weaker without having reckoned with the inheritance bequeathed to us by all those who fought in 1917.

And that is a weakness we can't afford.

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