Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

New Years Revolutions

Ninety years ago, in early January 1917, while in Switzerland, Lenin gave a lecture on the l905 Russian Revolution at a meeting of young workers in the Zurich People’s House. In it he concluded with the following comments:

'We very often meet West-Europeans who talk of the Russian revolution as if events, the course and methods of struggle in that backward country have very little resemblance to West-European patterns, and, therefore, can hardly have any practical significance. Nothing could be more erroneous.

The forms and occasions for the impending battles in the coming European revolution will doubtlessly differ in many respects from the forms of the Russian revolution.

Nevertheless, the Russian revolution—precisely because of its proletarian character, in that particular sense of which I have spoken—is the prologue to the coming European revolution. Undoubtedly, this coming revolution can only be a proletarian revolution, and in an even more profound sense of the word: a proletarian, socialist revolution also in its content. This coming revolution will show to an even greater degree, on the one hand, that only stern battles, only civil wars, can free humanity from the yoke of capital, and, on the other hand, that only class-conscious proletarians can and will give leadership to the vast majority of the exploited.'

In other words, the Russian Revolution of 1905 was to be of enormous significance for the coming European revolution - which Lenin expected as a result of the First World War.

'In Europe, the coming years, precisely because of this predatory war, will lead to popular uprisings under the leadership of the proletariat against the power of finance capital, against the big banks, against the capitalists; and these upheavals cannot end otherwise than with the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, with the victory of socialism.

We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution. But I can, I believe, express the confident hope that the youth which is working so splendidly in the socialist movement of Switzerland, and of the whole world, will be fortunate enough not only to fight, but also to win, in the coming proletarian revolution.'

Famously, one month later - after declaring that he himself 'may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution' - the European Revolution began - and began with another revolution in Russia that brought down the Tsarist dictatorship. The point about revolutions is that they always everyone by surprise when they come, even the revolutionaries. They sneak up on everyone 'like a thief in the night', as [apparently] Marx once noted.

None of this is to say that in one months time we will see revolution in Europe - despite the crisis posed for say the British ruling class by imperialist war in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are none of the signs of an impending revolutionary situation developing at the moment, far from it - though obviously outside Europe, in Venezuela for example, things are more interesting.

Yet what is also always interesting to think about - as Alex Callinicos does in the latest Socialist Worker, are the new forms of independent collective democratic organisation thrown up during such revolutionary upheavals.

Throughout the twentieth century - and beginning with the Russian Revolution of 1905 - workers' struggle during social revolutions threw up soviets - workers councils. The St Petersburg Soviet during 1905 brought together factory delegates from across the city. Of such councils, Callinicos notes:

'These would cut across existing divisions – linking different crafts and industries, uniting trade unionists and unorganised workers, and drawing together those with different political allegiances and with none. These class-wide organisations would be based in workplaces.' Such organisations reappeared during the February 1917 revolution in Russia, and also arose at other high points of struggle as the century progressed (inspiring one new revolutionary tradition to emerge briefly during the 1920s - 'Council Communism').

By themselves, Workers' Councils - based on the collective economic power of the working class - historically existed uneasily alongside other forms of power - in particular state power - political power - which remained outside workers control. So the February Revolution created a state of what Lenin called 'dual power' - where a new Parliament (Duma) - the 'Provisional Government' - represented the Russian capitalist elites while Soviet power grew in the workplaces of the towns and cities of Russia. In almost every case historically, eventually the workers councils have either been crushed by elites or have collapsed due to other pressures - and dual power therefore does not last long (hence the problem with simply espousing 'Council Communism'). The only exceptional breakthrough as Callinicos notes came in Russia in October 1917. 'Here the Bolshevik party, informed by Lenin’s analysis, won the debate within the soviets, persuading them to overthrow the provisional government and take power. This has made the October Revolution a model for revolutionary socialists ever since.'

Yet as Callinicos asks, in the twenty-first century, given the changes in global capitalism under neo-liberalism over the last twenty years, which are continuing, will we see classical Soviets in future social upheavals? Even in advanced capitalist countries, 'big industrial workplaces have become more dispersed geographically, as firms shift production to “green field” sites. The big cities have been de-industrialised, their workforces dominated by office and shop workers. These changes may mean that new explosions of working class insurgency take different forms.'

These, he notes, drawing on examples from Bolivia today, may be more akin to the Paris Commune of 1871. 'Karl Marx and Frederick Engels hailed the Paris Commune of 1871 as the first workers’ state. But the Commune was organised on the basis of neighbourhoods, not workplaces. This made sense in a city economically dominated by small workshops.' City wide Communes certainly seem as though they could be more appropriate for what Mike Davis calls 'the planet of slums' developing in much of the Third World.

Clearly, with respect to say, a country like Britain of the US, one cannot rule out the possibility of more classical workers councils controlling cities in a future situation of dual power - but again there are changes. For example, in Leeds, there are apparently fifty thousand students - and one part of the city is essentially a huge student hall of residence (with a few local people too). This 'student quarter' may well throw up a new organisational form based on territoriality though doubtless still linked to struggle around the University, as a workplace.

Anyway, I think the article is worth thinking about, perhaps alongside the following article by Adam Webb, which also ponders the question of what global revolution might look like in the twenty first century.

Some bloggers - unlike me - clearly have been hard at work writing stuff over the break. Maps has written a facinating defence of EP Thompson and the first new Left which deserves reading - even if one disagrees with argument made relating to Thompson and Trotsky, while Louis Proyect has written at length about Marx and religion. And on Marx, I doubt many Marxists have read this.



At 11:07 am, Blogger maps said...

Hi Snowball, pleased you liked the Thompson-Trotsky piece as I encountered Blackledge's article via your site. I agree with you, btw, on the merits of Blackledge's book on the Marxist theory of history. You might be interested in this post on the new Wintringham bio:


Post a Comment

<< Home