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Month June 2018

Review: Loren Goldner, Revolution, Defeat and Theoretical Underdevelopment: Russia, Turkey, Spain, Bolivia (2017)

The title of Loren Goldner’s latest book, Revolution, Defeat and Theoretical Underdevelopment (Haymarket Books, Chicago, Illinois, 2017) aptly sums up the basic thesis. What links his four case studies of the 1917 Russian Revolution; the experience of the Turkish Communist Party with Russia and the Communist International between 1917 and 1925; the failings of the revolutionaries in the Spanish Revolution and Civil War between 1936 and 1939; and the failure of the Trotskyist Fourth International in the Bolivian Revolution of 1952, is what he terms “theoretical underdevelopment.” None of these revolutionary movements were able to fulfill their promise of a new socialist society. And Goldner makes the case that the lack of a clear theoretical basis that could chart a direction forward was partly responsible for the failures.

In the case of the Russian Revolution, Goldner correctly focuses on the opportunities missed by underestimating the revolutionary potential of the peasantry. Peasants, at the time of the revolution, constituted 90 percent of the population. And 98 percent of them had organized production in the form of communes known as the mir. Furthermore, the peasantry had shown itself for generations to be militant revolutionaries. But there were elements in the revolutionary socialist movement inside of Russia that failed to see the possibilities of a path to socialism based on the mir itself. Instead, the dominant view was that Russia must go through a stage of capitalism to get to socialism. This had been debated in Russia during the time of Marx who, in the last decade of his life, was studying Russian agriculture and alternative paths to socialism. He argued with those who posited the need to have capitalism first that if this was Marxism that he was not Marxist. But after Marx’s death, Engels suppressed much of this work. And Lenin adopted such a stage theory before and after the Russian Revolution. His stance eventually opened up the door to Stalin after Lenin’s death to engage in a mass collectivization of agriculture that destroyed the mir and institutionalized the revolution in a state capitalist form.

This failure was compounded by Russia’s stance in Turkey after World War I. Goldner’s title for his chapter on Turkey is “Socialism in One Country before Stalin and the Origins of Reactionary ‘Anti-Imperialism.’ ” He traces the revolutionary movement in Turkey between 1917 and 1925 when Lenin’s Russia and the Third International chose to support the regime of Mustafa Kemal, known today as “Attaturk,” who had put an end to the Ottoman Empire, over a vibrant revolutionary communist movement that was also active in the region. Kemal had been successful in kicking Greece, which was supported by the British, out of Turkey. But there were soviet-style revolutions throughout what we today call the “Middle East.” Even Trotsky chose the “anti-imperialist” Kemal regime over these movements. In fact two months after the Turkish Communist Party leadership was massacred by the Kemal regime, Lenin signed a trade agreement with Kemal’s Turkey, making it clear that Turkish communists and all the other revolutionary movements in the region would not have the support of the Russians. A narrow focus on a regime intent on constructing first capitalism and then socialism took precedence over possible revolution in the East.

This direction was intensified once Lenin died and Trotsky was first exiled and then assassinated. Stalin was firmly in control of international communism and he demonstrated that in Spain. Goldner traces the origins and practice of the Spanish Revolution of 1936–39, as well as its demise after the civil war between the Spanish Republicans and the military forces of Fascist General Francisco Franco. Goldner contends that in 1936:

the Spanish working class and parts of the peasantry in the Republican zones arrived at the closest approximation of a self-managed society sustained in different forms over two and a half years, ever achieved in history.

According to Goldner, the anarchists were a clear majority and had the support of both the industrial proletariat and the peasantry. In explaining the collapse and military defeat of the Republic, Goldner offers a critique, not only of Stalin’s communism and Trotskyism, but the theory and practice of the anarchists. He argues that:

The Spanish anarchists had made the revolution, beyond their wildest expectations, and did not know what to do with it.

Their reluctance in both theory and practice to seize power, which would have involved imposing a dictatorship, opened the door to Stalin’s gambit of attacking both anarchists and Trotskyists. And that weakened the Republic to such an extent that Franco’s forces were able to defeat it militarily.

In Bolivia, Goldner examines the revolution of 1952 when a formation called the Movimiento Nacional Revolucionarío (mnr) seized state power. A military junta controlled Bolivia at the time the mnr seized power. The mnr was a broad revolutionary movement that had been in existence since 1941. By 1952, they favored the nationalization of the mines and agricultural reform. Goldner goes into great detail about the formation of the mnr in relation to many other political forces that were active in Bolivia. He discusses specifically the fascist influences on the mnr and also a dominant false view of Marxism that was rejected as “Eurocentric.” Instead, the mnr favored a form of revolutionary society that would be some synthesis of European and Andean-Amazonian cultures. The main Marxist current active at this time was Trotskyist. Goldner spends a great deal of time looking at the various currents of Trotskyism that came to bear on its influence in Bolivia. Briefly, its leaders did not believe the time was ripe for socialist revolution in Bolivia. And they saw their role as constituting a “left wing” in a bourgeois-nationalist anti-imperialist movement that could push toward socialism by giving the mnr “critical support.” As a result the actual reforms instituted by the mnr government between 1952 and 1964 were limited to, as Goldner puts it, “corporatist nationalizations and half-baked agrarian reform.”

The theme that embraces all four case studies in this book—Russia, Turkey, Spain and Bolivia—was the need for theoretical clarity in revolutionary movements. Overthrow of a government will lead to missed opportunities if there is not a clear idea of where the movement is headed once state power is gained. The book is well documented so that a serious reader can follow Goldner’s exhaustive research to gain a deep understanding of four important historical revolutionary movements.

One aspect of each case that was not dealt with directly was that each revolutionary regime was threatened militarily by outside forces. After the Russian Revolution, there was an ongoing ferocious civil war aided and abetted by Britain and France. In Turkey, Kemal was opposed by the British who also suppressed communist forces. In Spain, it was Franco who attacked the Republic and Stalin who attacked the anarchists who controlled the Republican regions of Spain. And in Bolivia, there was constant military upheaval up to 1952 and the threat of us intervention. The question is whether strong theoretical clarity could have helped the regimes unite the people in opposition to these threats.

Goldner’s argument is grounded in his view that the wage-labor proletariat continues to be a “key force for a revolution against capital.” He also contends that the number of such proletarians in the world today is greater than ever. I agree and believe this book is an important read for today as we strive to meet the present crisis of capitalism and turn aside the reactionary trends that are on the ascendancy.