Which train goes to socialism?

July 4, 2017

Todd Chretien, editor of the forthcoming Eyewitnesses to the Russian Revolution, considers the questions about socialism's future raised by Jacobin's Bhaskar Sunkara.

IN A New York Times article headlined "Socialism's Future May Be Its Past," Jacobin magazine founding editor Bhaskar Sunkara proposed an excellent metaphor for understandings the limits of the neoliberal political imagination in the Trump era.

As the Trump Train careens downhill, there are two basic destinations available under the current system. There is the technocratic, if cramped, "Singapore Station"--"the unacknowledged destination of the neoliberal center's train...where people in all their creeds and colors are respected--so long as they know their place."

Then there's the new-sheriff's-in-town "Budapest Station"--the "final stop for the populist right...[where] we're all in this together, unless you're an outsider who doesn't have a ticket."

Not much of a choice. Bhaskar suggests that the left go back to the future and buy a ticket for Finland Station in Russia--the famous spot where Lenin returned from exile in the midst of the 1917 revolution 100 years ago--so long as it is retrofitted with great halls for democratic deliberation.

Lenin speaks to a mass demonstration in 1917
Lenin speaks to a mass demonstration in 1917 (Albert Rhys Williams)

Appropriately enough, Bhaskar draws attention to this destination hot on the heels of left-wing Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn's triumph in the UK--at least partially on the basis of his promise to renationalize British Rail.

IT SPEAKS volumes that the editors of the Times--who long ago got off at Little Rock Station, a knockoff of Singapore Station, wholly owned and operated by the good people at Clinton Inc.--feel compelled to open their august publication to an avowed Bolshevik sympathizer. Bhaskar calls Lenin and his friends "well-intentioned people trying to build a better world out of a crisis."

This is all to the good as it kicks yet another crack in the holiest commandment of American politics: "Thou shalt not be a red."

Bhaskar's article comes at a moment when the prospects of an early and ignominious collapse of the Trump presidency seem to be receding--while the cold comfort that "Bernie could have won" turns to a sustained discussion on the left regarding what comes next.

Times have changed, and debates on the left today are drawing in tens of thousands of new participants. Certainly, Sanders can claim his fair share of credit, but websites like Jacobin and SocialistWorker.org were already engaging post-Occupy radicals when very few people could name the senator from Vermont.

Under Trump, Jacobin's readership has spiked and the Democratic Socialists of America, of which Bhaskar is a vice-chair, has tripled in size, cracking the 20,000 mark this spring. To the Jacobin team's great credit, they have insisted on building comradely relationships with all healthy sections of the socialist left and opened their pages to a spectrum of debate and opinion.

Thus, Bhaskar's opinion--though he would typically blanch at the suggestion--matters a great deal. Shoehorning a topic as ambitious as "Socialism's Future" into 1,403 words begrudged him by the Times necessitates cutting some corners. But having allowed that grain of salt, how should we assess his argument?

I AGREE with Bhaskar's emphasis on democratic practice lying at the heart of any genuine socialist movement.

In the years before the Russian Revolution, the international socialist movement cut its teeth on the great battles for democracy--both in the formal sense of fighting for the vote and an end to autocracies from France to Germany to Russia, but also in defense of oppressed nationalities and their languages and cultures, civil liberties, union rights, and basic freedoms of conscience, assembly and speech.

The socialist left today needs to carry on this great tradition. After all, as Bhaskar notes, "[E]lites today do not have democratic rights at the forefront of their minds--perhaps because they know that the societies they run are hard to justify on those terms." Embracing that insight can give the left a strategic opening to rally our side against hypocritical station managers from Singapore to Budapest.

Bhaskar also offers, rightly in my opinion, a sensible assessment of the condition in which our train--battered and bruised by decades of neoliberalism, war and escalating climate disaster--is likely to arrive: "Our 21st-century Finland Station won't be a paradise. You might feel heartbreak and misery there. But it will be a place that allows so many now crushed by inequity to participate in the creation of a new world."

If the left is to matter, it must put aside its obsession with interpersonal politics, small slights and self-satisfied withdrawal from the real world of working-class people and capitalist state power. Masses of people who join strikes and social movements carry the scars of their past, but they are the only force capable of confronting and defeating the forces of order and capital accumulation.

In a letter to Abraham Lincoln on the occasion of his second inauguration, Karl Marx described socialism as the "self-emancipation of the working class." Bhaskar's paraphrase might be softened just a bit, but it is the bedrock of our common commitment to what it means to be a socialist.

HOWEVER, IT is precisely in defense of this point that Bhaskar, I'm afraid, presents a one-sided view of historical events to buttress his particular political conclusion.

The question isn't so much about the final destination, but the routes that revolutionaries of the past have traveled to get there--and the ones we may follow ourselves, based on their example.

According to Bhaskar, if we reject liberal and conservative caricatures of the Bolsheviks as "crazed demons," then we must also "work out how to avoid their failures."

But precisely what "failures" must we avoid? Did Lenin "set into motion the events that led to Stalin's gulags," as Bhaskar states at the outset of his article? And if so, then shouldn't we choose a radically different path?

Never one to duck an argument, Bhaskar clearly presents his alternative:

That project entails a return to social democracy. Not the social democracy of François Hollande, but that of the early days of the Second International. This social democracy would involve a commitment to a free civil society, especially for oppositional voices; the need for institutional checks and balances on power; and a vision of a transition to socialism that does not require a "year zero" break with the present.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, this description--aside from the well-aimed kick at Hollande--is so general as to be open to many interpretations.

For instance, does Bhaskar have dates in mind to delimit the "early days" of the Second International? If he means up until 1914--when the dominant leaders of its most powerful parties fell into line behind their "own" ruling classes and supported the slaughter of the First World War--that is worth discussing, but it leads immediately to another question: Weren't there already lines of tension hardening, even in the "early years," that would eventually lead to the split?

In precisely these years, the Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg famously took up the revolutionary cudgels against avowedly reformist Eduard Bernstein's proposition that "The Final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything."

Against Bernstein's suggestion that workers should abandon their preparations for "year zero," Luxemburg wrote in her Reform or Revolution: "The question of reform or revolution, of the final goal and the movement, is basically, in another form, but the question of the petty-bourgeois or proletarian character of the labor movement."

In the years that followed, Lenin, Luxemburg and the socialist left internationally fought against creeping colonialism, militarism and bureaucracy--while the right wing of the socialist movement (and increasingly the party apparatuses) came to value stability and accommodation with the ruling order over the disruptive threat of revolutionary action.

If it took the imperialist war in 1914 to pry the factions apart, civil war was already brewing just beneath the surface. At the 1907 Stuttgart Congress, a right-wing motion to adopt a special "socialist colonial" policy aimed at "civilizing" those oppressed by European occupation was defeated--but barely, by a 128-to-108 vote, with 10 abstentions.

Thus, while there is much to learn from the Second International, we shouldn't avoid taking sides.

RETURNING TO the question of Finland Station: This split played itself out before 1914 between the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions/parties in Russia--from the first fissure in 1903 through the October Revolution in 1917 and after.

As it happened, Lenin and his Menshevik counterpart, the brilliant Julius Martov, each disembarked at the Finland Station upon their return from exile in 1917--Lenin on April 3 and Martov in June. And perhaps this happenstance will help highlight my disagreement with Bhaskar's interpretation of history.

Bhaskar is on solid ground in asserting that we can achieve socialism "only with the support of a majority." But as this statement heads a paragraph that ends with an injunction about Bolshevik's "mistakes," one might be forgiven for assuming that Bhaskar is inferring the Bolsheviks didn't have the support of the majority--that they pulled off a minority coup to complete October Revolution in 1917.

Martov didn't think so. An avowed opponent of the Bolsheviks, he nevertheless acknowledged in a letter to a comrade: "Understand please, that before us after all is a victorious uprising of the proletariat--almost the entire proletariat supports Lenin and expects its social liberation from the uprising."

The real questions at stake when it comes to the historical Finland Station are not how to avoid taking power with minority support, nor constructing a one-party state. The executive of the revolutionary workers' state established in October 1917 was composed of 62 Bolsheviks, 29 Left Socialist Revolutionaries and 10 Mensheviks.

Rather, the real questions were: How to break the final vestiges of the authority of the Tsarist high command in the army in order to end the war; how to wrest land from the oligarchs so that the poor and middle peasants might plant crops in order to feed the country; how to liberate oppressed nations from the Tsarist state; and how workers might control industrial production in a context where the Russian capitalists preferred a German invasion to losing control of their property.

The Bolsheviks had a ready reply: A workers' government free from bourgeois commitments to continuing the war that could act in the interest of the majority by means of, as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto, "despotic inroads on the rights or property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production."

Martov's tragedy was that he agreed with much of this, but vainly hoped that the right-wing Mensheviks who controlled his party--and who had jailed leaders of the revolution such as Leon Trotsky, Anatoly Lunacharsky and Lev Kamenev in July--might change their minds and come to an agreement with the Bolsheviks. In the end, support for Martov's position all but vanished.

Rosa Luxemburg, who was harshly critical of some aspects of Bolshevik policy, offered this assessment against those who challenged the Bolsheviks and the legitimacy of the October Revolution:

Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary far-sightedness and consistency in an historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and all the other comrades have given in good measure. All the revolutionary honor and capacity which western Social-Democracy lacked was represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honor of international socialism.

THIS IS not to say that all socialist revolutions must follow the path established by the Bolsheviks in very different conditions a century ago. That is an impossibility.

It does mean, however, that if we want to marshal history as a guide to prepare for recurring patterns and challenges for the left, we must accurately understand our predecessors' choices. In this, Bhaskar is pointing in the right direction--toward the Finland Station--but with a hand over one eye, meaning his depth perception may be faulty.

What do I mean? Bhaskar writes, "Stripped down to its essence, and returned to its roots, socialism is an ideology of radical democracy."

There is a large amount of truth in this, but it doesn't fully come to grips with the one amendment that Marx and Engels made to the Communist Manifesto in the wake of the Paris Commune of 1871--that "the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes."

Invoking "radical democracy" by itself does not solve the question that Marx and Engels posed, because to establish genuine "radical democracy" requires overturning the existing state structure and establishing a new system for the majority to assert its collective democratic will.

With the experience of Greece's SYRIZA fresh in our minds, many revolutionary socialists today are returning to the question of the nature of the capitalist state. There is no need to demand unanimity of opinion to recognize that the ruling powers concentrated in the upper echelons of capital's increasingly brutal and unaccountable state apparatuses will not neatly submit to democracy, no matter how radical.

Instead, taking Bhaskar's warning to heart, we must learn the lessons of Germany in 1933, Chile in 1973 and Egypt in 2014. Closer to home, our own ruling class--even if some of them (but how many?) find him distasteful--is gleefully taking advantage of the Trump presidency to smash and grab, while Trump twitters and the planet burns.

It is possible that a new era may yet emerge, in which--as Bhaskar points out occurred for a time after the Second World War--"free enterprise would be tamed, not overcome, and a greater share of a growing pie would go to providing universal benefits through generous welfare states." But I think we can agree that that is perhaps the least likely outcome facing future generations.

Rather than rely on this, we will have to fight. And if our train will be powered by demands for the "basics necessary to live a good life...education, housing and health care," as Bhaskar argues, we must also refuel our depleted antiwar movement, challenge the stranglehold of political parties run by the rich, and teach ourselves and our class how to fight for the rights of the most oppressed on the path towards universal liberation for all.

Some of this will be fought out on the electoral terrain, in one form or another. But more important still are mass movements for social, racial, gender and ecological justice--and even more so, good old-fashioned strikes and struggles of the working class.

The tasks of building connections and uniting all these struggles require political organizations whose central principle is the self-emancipation of the working class. That, too, is a lesson Lenin unpacked at his Finland Station.

Today, like it or not, all of us socialists are on the same train, even if we might start out on different cars. Thankfully, it's a lot more crowded than it was just a few years ago, and communication between compartments is flowing freely. There will be time enough to share ideas and debate along the way, and learn in practice which strategies and tactics get the goods.

But the point of all that work is to be ready to win when we arrive at our own Finland Station.

Further Reading

From the archives