Talk about Marxism after Marx and most people will think of Russia – bleak, backwards, stiflingly authoritarian dawn-of-the-twentieth-century Russia, and the luxuriantly facial-haired revolutionaries waiting in the wings to knock it all over.
That’s where the first leg of our historical-intellectual bus tour through Marxism post Marx is going to start, but we’re going to spend as little time there as possible.
When I say the Left is obsessed with Marxism, what I really mean is that it massively overinflates the importance and contemporary relevance of A) Marx himself and B) the theory and politics of the Russian revolution.
The Bolsheviks lived a hundred years ago, in a decaying feudalistic dictatorship, and replaced it with something that, by all accounts, wasn’t all that much better.
It’d be nice to never have to hear the names Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin again – particularly since so-called Western Marxism, emerging from non-Soviet Europe from the 1920s onwards, is massively more relevant to the world as it is today, and woefully neglected by present-day radicals.
But they’re a part of the story, and so, even if you want to encourage a modern, radical socialism that leaves them and their theorising well alone, it wouldn’t be right to omit them entirely. So seatbelts on and keep your hands inside the vehicle at all times – we’re going in.
The Russian Revolution wasn’t really much of a ‘revolution’ at all. Imperial Russia was a mess. Ungovernably huge, economically backward, and largely populated by exploited, impoverished rural peasants, the country had turned increasingly violent and oppressive as resistance to its autocratic leadership grew. More immediately, the First World War had killed six million of its people, and brought misery to the Home Front.
In February 1917, spontaneous mass protests in Petrograd, the Russian capital, led to the abdication of the Tsar, Russia’s all-powerful king. He was replaced by a dysfunctional and short-lived civilian government that insisted on continuing to fight the Germans. Civil unrest quickly resumed, and fed the growing local popularity of the Bolsheviks, the most radical of Petrograd’s anti-government factions. In October, pro-Bolshevik soldiers seized strategically important buildings around the city. The government fell, the Bolsheviks took over, and, outside the capital, the vast majority of Russians knew nothing about it, or even who the Bolsheviks were.
The Bolsheviks were Marxists, but their ‘revolution’ – really more of an easy coup enacted against a weak government distracted by war – wasn’t especially Marxist.
Marx thought revolution was inevitable – a slow-building socioeconomic force of nature that would automatically come about in the most advanced capitalist countries when the proletariat, the industrial working-class, made up the vast majority of the population. But Russia was about the last place Marx had in mind. It barely had a proletariat, or any industry outside a few western cities. It wasn’t even fully capitalist yet.
But the Bolsheviks nonetheless wanted a revolution – and didn’t want to wait around for the decades if not centuries it would take Russia to become the kind of sophisticated, industrialised capitalist economy that Marx described. So they set about theorising a way around it.
Vladimir Illyich Ulyanov – ‘Lenin’ was a revolutionary pseudonym that stuck – was de facto Bolshevik leader, and Russia’s most prominent Marxist. He decided that imperialism, the reason Europe was busy tearing itself to pieces further west, was in fact the highest, last form of capitalism. The capitalist-imperialist system was global, connecting all the major European powers – and Lenin thought that a revolution in Russia, the weakest link in the Euro-capitalist chain, could spark socialist uprisings across the continent.
He argued for what became known as vanguardism – the idea that rather than waiting for a revolution to just happen, a core of professionalised revolutionaries should effectively make it happen. The Bolsheviks saw themselves as the ‘vanguard’ of the Russian proletariat, charged with stirring up and organising the working class, then leading them in an anti-government revolt.
They did indeed manage to chivvy some sympathetic workers and soldiers into helping them into power. With the October coup, the Bolsheviks effectively became the government, and Lenin effectively became head of state. But that left them tussling with a whole range of other huge political-philosophical problems.
Marx had written basically nothing about the practicalities of revolution, how capitalism would transition to socialism, and what a post-capitalist society would look like. He simply said that, after a successful revolution, the revolutionaries would establish ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ while the state withered away – just like that, to quote Tommy Cooper.
Unfortunately, the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ turned out to be a dangerously ambiguous phrase. In practice, it became the dictatorship of the leadership of the vanguard of the proletariat – Lenin and the top Bolsheviks, in other words. That dictatorship lasted seventy years, the state never withered, and socialism never arrived.
Socialism worth a damn is about radical democracy. Between February and October 1917, there was an upsurge in socialist activity across Russia – radicalised workers and soldiers organised soviets, or workers’ councils, to administer their own affairs, taking over factories and other key bits of the industrial economy and running them themselves.
But in establishing their ‘proletarian’ dictatorship, the Bolsheviks dismantled all these organs of popular democracy. The proles were expected to unquestioningly submit to the will of their self-appointed leaders. It was no small irony that the new Bolshevised Russian state was eventually renamed the Soviet Union.
Already made harsh and militaristic by Tsarist oppression, five years of civil war with Western-backed counter-revolutionaries hardened the Bolsheviks into something just as brutal and authoritarian as the regime they’d replaced. With millions dying on both sides of the conflict, Lenin established the Cheka, a secret police force charged with rooting out political opponents, that went on to execute hundreds of thousands of people.
The Bolsheviks, now the Russian Communist Party, emerged from the devastating civil war just about victorious. But the economy was in ruins. Millions of Russians were dead. Within a couple of years, Lenin was dead too. And among the remaining Communist leaders, a debate emerged about what they should do next.
Two main positions emerged. Lev Davidovitch Bronhstein – Trotsky – thought that the Soviet Union would only survive if similar uprisings occurred in other industrialised countries. The Communists’ main priority, in his view, was to ‘export’ revolution – use their resources to help other national Communist Parties achieve successful anti-capitalist uprisings. Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili – Stalin – thought the Communists needed to focus on consolidating their hold on Russia first, and reorganising society along ‘socialist’ lines.
Whereas Trotsky was a flamboyant intellectual, Stalin was a bureaucratic fixer with a talent for organisation. He easily outmanoeuvred Trotsky, and all other opposition within the party, eventually replacing Lenin as leader, and going on to become one of history’s greatest mass murderers.
The Soviet Union became a totalitarian monstrosity, where Stalin worship was the national religion. Any pretence of achieving equality and democracy went out the window, as the Stalinised Communist Party fostered an ultra-conservative Russian nationalism to try and keep the masses on-side.
After Stalin’s death, things improved marginally. But while the triumphalist right saw it as the ultimate repudiation of socialism, the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union was actually a mild victory for left-wingers.
About the best thing the Bolsheviks can do for modern-day socialism is go away. They took a concept that stood for radical emancipatory egalitarianism and convinced the world it meant purges, famines, labour camps and firing squads.
There was little doubting their commitment to their cause, but their dogmatism and their brutality set genuine socialism back decades, if not centuries. You can argue that they had no other choice, besieged by rich, hostile nations who did everything in their power to undermine them – that genuine socialism would’ve been immediately crushed by the forces of reaction.
But nothing excuses the extent of the violence they unleashed on their own people, or their willingness to trample the grassroots socialism that epitomised everything they supposedly believed in.
Even more so than its Marx fixation, a modern, radical Left needs to ditch the Bolshevik worship once and for all.