Reflections on the Russian Revolution
18 June 2009
At present I am listening to Red Mutiny by Neal Bascomb, a book about the mutiny on the Russian battleship Potemkin in 1905, a dozen years before the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war of 1917. I have learned a lot from this book, and it has given me much to think about.
It has become a commonplace of historical (and revolutionary) thought that Russia was a backward autocracy at the beginning of the twentieth century, so much so that Lenin and his Bolsheviks had to introduce some not insignificant revisions into orthodox Marxism in order to justify a revolution in an empire that was not industrialized and in which the bulk of the population consisted of uneducated agricultural peasants.
While this is true on the whole, it is also true that a few of Russia’s cities around the turn of the previous century were large industrialized urban centers with a disaffected and alienated urban proletariat. This was especially true for St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Odessa. When the Potemkin mutiny took place, Odessa was in chaos from worker strikes that had shut down industry in this thriving port, and a few agitators tried to make common cause between the mutinous sailors on the Potemkin and the striking workers in Odessa, although at that time the critical mass of revolution was not achieved.
Probably the conditions that obtained in Russia’s few large urbanized and industrialized centers were unique in history; such conditions did not obtain in any other region of the world at any other time, and it may well happen that the critical confluence of factors will never again obtain at one place and at one time.
Thus while from an orthodox Marxist perspective the revolution in Russia was premature, and the consolidation of the power of the Bolshevik Party came about through the successful prosecution of a civil war rather than through proletarian revolution, there is an sense in which the Russian Revolution was not premature, and that sense is the critical mass of industrialized urban centers coupled with the mass media communications only then being mastered as well as a terminally backward regime that resolutely refused to reform itself.
In western Europe there had been large industrializing and industrial cities since the late eighteen century. Here, no doubt, the newly emergent urban proletariat was alienated and disaffected, but, being a very new historical phenomenon, the early urban industrial proletariat lacked class consciousness, organization, and ideology. Indeed, Marx and Engels were appalled by the suffering of the urban proletariat in the early nineteenth century, and they created the doctrine and the ideology that could later be used by organizers both fomenting revolution and raising worker class consciousness. Also, the mass media of instantaneous telecommunications (newspapers and the telegraph) did not yet exist in during the earliest period of industrialization in western Europe.
The lack of ideological organization and effective mass communication during the Industrial Revolution in western Europe gave even the sluggish political regimes time to pursue sufficient reform to placate the workers, and ultimately this reform was far reaching. In most western European countries, monarchies gave way to constitutional monarchies and to republics. The House of Lords in England voluntarily voted to relinquish its power in favor of the House of Commons, and most of this occurred without revolutions such as were seen in France and Russia.
After the example of the Russian Revolution, many governments tardy on reform saw the need to take action to prevent a similar revolution on their own soil, as the fear of a worldwide communist revolution with workers joining hands across political divisions (workers without borders, as it were) was very real — as real as the fear after 1789 that the revolutionary hordes coming out of France would inspire the beheading of other monarchs. Even recalcitrant and reactionary regimes got the message loud and clear. Some measures taken were repressive in the extreme, but in most societies power ultimately was vested in popular sovereignty. Everyone, or almost everyone, could see the handwriting on the wall.
We noted earlier that the Russian Revolution required substantial revisions to Marxist theory. In China, even greater revisions were required, as China was even less industrialized that Russia, and Mao had to make the rural peasant the basis of his guerrilla war that brought the Communist Party of China to power. Now, more than a half century after its titular communist “revolution” China is experiencing its own industrial revolution, and the conditions there, as in other parts of the world only now industrializing, are so different from those conditions that obtained in the industrialized centers of Tsarist Russia in 1905 and 1917 that no one even expects another communist revolution in China to supplant the previous communist revolution, although from the theoretical standpoint it is plausible.
China’s greatest worry is an economic downturn that closes factories, puts millions of workers on the street, and the social and political instability that would follow from this development. And if this should happen on a sufficiently large scale, the result would not be a more purely communist regime. If workers protest, they would be protesting as much against the mendacity of the regime as against its inability to give them work and improve their economic well being.
Now, even in less developed and less wealthy nation-states, instantaneous communication has reached a point far beyond anything imagined at the time of the Russian Revolution (as we see with the prominence of high technology information exchange in the present turmoil over the recent Iranian election), but the message being spread is completely different than that being promulgated one hundred years ago. Reform has gone too far in too many places and for too long. The vision of what life can be like is too widely available for regimes to pretend that things are no better elsewhere than at home. And the alternative to reform is a revolutionary primitivism that threatens no one but those who embrace it and thus marginalize themselves.
The unique conditions that made the Russian Revolution possible are not likely to be repeated anytime again in history, and certainly not any time soon. There certainly will be other revolutions, as unexpected as the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and other tyrannies, but they will be unprecedented, and will not look to the past for any but symbolic inspiration.
. . . . .