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Month October 2017

On the Extreme Margins of the Centennial of the October Revolution: The Legacy of 1917 We Can Affirm

The year 1917 is most closely associated with the Russian Revolution, but it is more important to locate that revolution in the global tidal wave of working-class struggle from 1917 to 1921 (continued up to 1927 in China), which forced the end of the first inter-imperialist world war (1914–18).

This tidal wave included the German Revolution (1918–21), the factory occupations in northern Italy (1919–20), the 1919 nationwide strike wave in Britain, revolution in Hungary (1919), and important strikes in France in 1919–20, in Spain from 1919 to 1923, and in the United States (1919).

These struggles continued and amplified the pre-war ferment associated with the iww in the United States, the syndicalist strike wave in England, Ireland and Scotland from 1908 to 1914, the “red week” in Italy in 1914, and above all the Russian Revolution of 1905–07, which put workers’ councils and above all soviets on the historical agenda as the practical discovery of the working class in struggle, the product of no theoretician.

As such an unlikely witness as England’s King George vi put it, “Thank God for the war! It saved us from the revolution.”

And these are only the upsurges in Europe and the United States. It is often forgotten that the period from 1905 to 1914 appeared to contemporaries as an era of mounting revolutions, including Iran (1906), Mexico (1910–20), China (1911), and an uprising in India (1909).

These struggles in the semi-colonial and colonial world continued after World War I with the long period of ferment in China, culminating in 1925–27, the Japanese rice riots of 1919, the (rather problematic) South African general strike of 1922,[1] a left-wing officers’ coup in Brazil in 1922, the wave of struggles in Turkey up to 1925,[2] the Gilan soviet in northern Iran, and a left-leaning, pro-Soviet coup in Afghanistan.

I see the best legacy to the present of these revolts and revolutions as the so-called left communists, of both the German-Dutch and Italian variants, most closely associated with figures such as Herman Gorter, Anton Pannekoek and Amadeo Bordiga. What both variants had in common was their assertion that, unlike the worker-peasant alliance which made the “dual revolution” in Russia, the working class in the west stood alone, and could not ally with the peasantry, which already had land. There were also Russians who agreed with the western currents, such as the Workers’ Group around Miasnikov.

(Assessing in any depth the ambiguous roles of Lenin and Trotsky, who were indeed great strategists, but whose theories and practice of organization gave the counter-revolution its point of departure, would unfortunately double the length of this short essay.)

The left-communist currents were buried, in the ebb of the world revolutionary wave, most memorably symbolized in the crushing of the Kronstadt soviet of 1921, by decades of hegemony of the Russi-centered Third International and the Stalinist counter-revolution it spread worldwide. What had been a sideshow, a country in which the working class was at most 10 percent of the population in 1917, became the main show, for an epoch.

To these currents, I must add the name of Rosa Luxemburg. Luxemburg was killed too early (January 1919) to define a clear post-1918 perspective fully breaking with Social Democracy. But her writings on the mass strike after 1905, her rejection of nationalism, and her two works on the critique of political economy are as relevant today as when they were written. Not to mention the remarkable humanity shown in her letters from prison during the world war.

I don’t agree with the left communists who say (or came to say, e.g., Otto Rühle) that the Bolshevik Revolution was a bourgeois revolution from Day One. This characterization evolved by the early 1920s; during the Russian Civil War (1918–21) itself, the left communists in the west were blowing up trains carrying weapons and ammunitions to the Russian Whites. Quite aside from the brief power of the soviets, 1917 marked a vast expansion of the Russian peasant commune, which controlled 98 percent of Russian territory until Stalin’s “collectivizations” in 1930.[3]

All in all, while most of these names and currents may seem, for the present, little more than fossils preserved in amber, they point, as a guidepost for today, to a possible synthesis of the best of the German-Dutch lefts with the Italian Communist Left (the “Bordigists”). (This in full recognition of the fact that the two currents loathed each other.) These elements would include the soviet, i.e., the regional body of working, unemployed and retired proletarians which overcomes the division of labor materialized in the individual workplace (Bordiga’s critique of Gramsci’s vaunted factory councils); workers’ councils as an adjunct to the soviet; the theory of the “dual revolution” to characterize the Russian 1917, and the insistence on working-class political independence from any “cross-class” alliances.

I also lean toward Bordiga’s characterization of the Soviet Union (and later spinoffs, up to China and Vietnam today) as a “transition to capitalism.” This avoids the peremptory and to my mind facile term “state capitalism” while also rejecting the Trotskyist concept of the “workers’ state.”

All this said, there is no unbroken thread of orthodox continuity we can retrieve for the present, but rather only guidelines. The new international synthesis is a work in progress, to which this is one contribution.

One Hundred Years After the Earthquake of 1917

In 2017, in the world of Trump, Putin, Xi, Duterte, Modi, Erdogan, Assad and Netanyahu, it may seem “non-contemporary” in the extreme to talk of the next world working-class upsurge.

To correct this reticence, one need, however, only look to Asia, with China in the lead, with more and more “incidents” (i.e., confrontations) every year (150,000 in 2016), including several thousand strikes; Vietnam, with three or four general strikes in the past decade; Cambodia, with strike upon strike[4]; Bangladesh, with numerous strikes and riots in the textile and clothing export sectors, in which women predominate; and India,[5] such as at Maruti Suzuki.

The task is to locate the “invariant” that, in every revolutionary upsurge since 1848, has “compelled” the wage-labor proletariat to seek and implement new forms of struggle. If the world today is dominated by the accumulation of capital, the global wage-labor proletariat is its “dark underside,” the collective practical subject further inverted into alienated forms by a post-1970s strategy of fragmentation, culminating in the ongoing attempted “Uberization” of the class. The world dominated by profit, finance and real estate (ground rent) is one in which the results of human labor seem to walk on their head, and only in the exceptional conjunctures of rupture does the “class for itself” of those whose daily alienated activity underpins those forms, stand upright and stride toward reality in seven-league boots.

The Franco-Prussian War that sparked the Commune, the Russian defeat in the 1904–05 war with Japan that led to the eruption in both Russia and Poland of 1905–07, the German sailors in Kiel who in 1918 mutinied rather than face certain death against the British blockade, are past instances of proletarians pushed to the limits by the logic of the system, and who instead upended it. A war today of the dimensions of the two inter-imperialist world wars would be an unspeakable catastrophe, and would probably answer definitively the question of “socialism or barbarism?” in favor of the latter. Today, and for a long time, the barbarians have been winning. To take only the sad example of the United States, we see the “world’s richest country” regularly leading the “advanced capitalist” world in deaths on the job. The ratio of ceo to workers’ income has increased from 40:1 in the 1970s to 200–300:1 today, with workers’ share of gdp at a post-1945 low. The current (September 2017) massive hurricanes Harvey and Irma underscore, just for the United States, the upward slope of “climate events” as further evidence, if evidence were needed, of climate change.

Nevertheless, because we see communism first of all “as the real movement unfolding before our eyes” (Communist Manifesto), we can point, in addition to the above-mentioned ongoing strike waves in Asia, to the movements of the Argentine piqueteros of 2001 and since, to the black youth of Ferguson, Missouri, who in 2014 went into the streets day after day following the shooting of Michael Brown, to the ongoing French worker and youth resistance to the gutting of the country’s labor laws, now high on the agenda of Macron, to the ongoing labor militancy at Egypt’s key Malhalla textile plant and the bread riots in that country in March 2017, to the years of strikes and riots against European Union austerity in Greece, and to the miners’ strikes in South Africa. We can point to the violent nationwide resistance to yet another increase in the price of gasoline in Mexico in early 2017, and Vietnamese workers who attacked factory guards in March 2017.[6] These are just a few of the examples indicating that the “old mole” is not dead.

We can thus best acknowledge the centennial of the Russian Revolution, in the larger context of the eruptions of 1917–21, not in beatific contemplation of a historical rupture far in the past, but by contributing to the unification of the struggles of today and tomorrow, of the coming revolt of the class that “is the answer to the riddle of history, and knows itself to be that answer.”

  1. [1] The South African strikers raised the slogan: “Workers of the World Unite for a White South Africa.”
  2. [2] See my article on this period.
  3. [3] See my article on the agrarian question.
  4. [4] See Art Mean’s new article in Insurgent Notes no. 15.
  5. [5] See the Kamunist Kranti article in Insurgent Notes no. 15.
  6. [6] I thank the blog “Nous sommes les oiseaux de la tempete qui s’annoncent” for these examples and more.