Lessons From the First Red Century
"We want a left that can learn from 1917 Russia and 1976 Sweden."
- Interview by
- Jonah Birch
The following is adapted from a discussion between Jacobin contributing editor Jonah Birch and Bhaskar Sunkara, on Sunkara’s “The Few Who Won,” an article in our new issue, “The First Red Century.”
Just until Christmas, you can get a discounted subscription (or gift sub) to the print edition by following this link.
We’re at the end of a year of looking back at the Russian Revolution, and there is clearly a debate about how relevant it is to talk about 1917 Russia. There has been a whole series of publications this year, like China Mieville‘s October, which deal with the history of 1917. What is the relevance of the Russian Revolution for us today?
Why is there an entire Jacobin issue covering 1917 and its aftermath now? What was your engagement with these debates?
In many ways, I came to the Left through the Russian Revolution. Somewhere around eighth grade, I read the Deutscher trilogy, about Trotsky. That was my entry point into the ideas of the Left, actually My Life before that, but I didn’t think it was a very good book.
I joined the Democratic Socialists of America in high school though, not a group that traces its tradition to the Russian Revolution, but it was a history I remained compelled by. It was the first attempt to build a new order, entirely outside of capitalism. We shouldn’t underestimate what generations of socialists called “the greatest event in human history.”
The Bolsheviks weren’t just intellectuals or professional revolutionaries; they were people with an organic connection to a working-class base. That is why the Bolsheviks were best able to adapt to the new situations emerging in February 1917 through October. Not because Lenin was sitting in some perch dispensing brilliance. It was because they had people embedded everywhere, building and listening to working-class demands.
This group of workers, a tiny percentage of Russia at the time, was able to change the destiny not just of one country but of the entire world. This is the core of what being a socialist is about — about saying so much in society that people take as natural in their lives is not, in fact natural; that it’s the result of political outcomes, and through conscious activity, we can change those outcomes.
The Bolsheviks made some very grim decisions in the context of a civil war. Throughout there were constantly voices within Bolshevism calling for more worker control, to reassess decisions, to curtail the impunity in which the Cheka operated, and so on. But as Rosa Luxemburg warned, the bureaucracy that cemented itself in these difficult conditions came to make virtue out of necessity. All these temporary measures became institutionalized.
Regardless of what we make of what came after 1917, it was the first attempt to build a socialist state, to abolish the tyranny of capital — of course, it’s something young socialists should be studying.
The people who made the 1917 revolution very much saw themselves as continuing a tradition of revolutionary moments throughout the previous century — 1789, 1793, 1848, 1871, and so on.
Having that historical memory is important. Not necessarily because it provides a model to replicate. Not that we’re going to build a mass movement in this country once millions of people say “I’m a Leninist” and recreate a party from early twentieth-century Russia. What’s important is being able to contextualize yourself and your own political activity. Unless there is some kind of political memory today, there’s only so far the Left can get.
This history is relevant to the Left because it was a successful revolution, and we have to deal with the aftermath (both good and bad). We learned valuable lessons about how difficult it is to actually administer a socialist state. We learned a lot of lessons about the permanence of certain political questions, even after the primary class question is resolved — like the need for multiple parties, representing multiple currents within the working class.
And that we’re capable of building institutions that express a different class interest, a different vision of how society should function.
We can start to build these institutions within capitalism. The Bolsheviks had a mass party, their organs of publications, being in workplaces across cities. This embedded them among the working class — yes, a small percentage of the total Russian population — but it was still an engagement with several million people. That’s way more than the Left in the Western world can claim today.
Exactly. There have been different experiments in working-class parties and movements. They have left us positive and negative lessons, the shared legacy is the way in which (even necessary) bureaucracies start to develop distinct interests and the need for ways to hold them accountable.
Right. And the question of social democracy is a complicated one, because it actually has a few different meanings. “Social democracy” can refer to a political strategy, in which labor pursues a reformist road to socialism. In this sense, it signifies more than that the Left needs to fight for reforms (which the Bolsheviks also thought), but that socialism was achievable without a revolutionary rupture.
“Social democracy” can also refer to the actual parties and labor organizations that made up the Second International, such as the German SPD and Sweden. And it also can also describe a model of egalitarian welfare capitalism like that which strong social-democratic labor movements managed to construct in countries like Sweden after World War II.
Now, in each of these respects, social democracy has been in steady decline for most of the last four decades: its socialist reformism is by now little more than a memory; its leading parties — with a few exceptions like Corbyn’s Labour Party — are a shell of what they once were; and the post-war social-democratic model is clearly dead and gone. Maybe we’re about to see a social-democratic revival. Who can predict? But either way, just like with Leninism and the revolution in Russia, social democracy’s rise and fall offers valuable lessons for us.
With social democracy, we’ve seen that pursuing a strategy of patience can, in the end, draw you close to the nation, to the class, that you were created to oppose. And that if you don’t take structural power away from capitalists, your gains can be eroded.
For the revolutionaries of 1917, Europe’s social democrats were hopelessly compromised by their capitulation to the forces of war and national unity in August 1914. It was this initial refusal to actively oppose World War I that marked social democracy in the eyes of the Bolsheviks and their co-thinkers — an understandable reaction for anyone who lived through that war and experienced the shock of seeing the once-powerful socialist movement utterly fractured by it.
Afterwards, the far left’s belief that, even if it was necessary to ally with them in common fights for reforms and in defense of workers interests, the eventual social-democratic betrayal was inevitable, continued to guide its thinking.
In retrospect, we can say things aren’t quite that simple. In the post-World War II period, social democrats in some parts of Europe managed to construct institutions that bolstered workers’ power and strengthened the Left. Those achievements shouldn’t be downplayed, and their unraveling can’t simply be explained as a matter of unprincipled, opportunist leaders. Moreover, the decline of social democracy since the 1970s has been devastating to the far left, emblematic of the disorganization of the workers’ movement.
For me, it’s the other side of the coin when it comes to the twentieth-century left’s failures.
A process of revolutionary transformation is going to require a long period of time. But I do differentiate that from the gradualist idea that you just slowly erode capitalism away. There needs to be a rupture, some kind of break.
We see the resistance that is put up against even the mildest reforms today. Even under social democracy, capitalists refused to accept challenges to their profitability, to their ability to manage. We need to open horizons that can’t be opened solely through electoral means; it has to happen through power in the streets. That part of the revolutionary socialist tradition is very much worth holding onto. Especially because our vision of socialism can’t come about as the result of a class compromise. Our vision of socialism isn’t changing the score of the game a bit, it’s when the rules of the game are fundamentally changed in the interest of workers.
For those of us between the two traditions of revolutionary socialism and social democracy, we have no program, no clear alternative to either. Either we choose to fight for gains for workers within the system, while re-stabilizing the system, the path of social democracy, or we choose an insurrectionary path in an era where state legitimacy and other factors makes that seem unrealistic in advanced capitalist countries. The challenge for us today is developing that alternative, the type of strategy and politics that can actually transform the world.