The revolution from over a century ago and its anniversary are useful for us, but in a different manner than you might think.
The left is in such a poor state that even if it wanted to refer to the October Revolution in any rational manner, it would not have either the knowledge or the capability to do so. Therefore, it is not surprising that the most substantive celebration of the hundredth anniversary are the ritual and reconstructive frolics on the squares of Moscow and Petersburg. Perhaps pleasing to the eye, but nevertheless empty and depoliticized. The hope is that there are still people or groups hidden in the dark corners of reality, who will spend even part of today’s day on relevant political reflection, even though, as good Marxists, they should not attach particular importance to rituals.
There is a lot to reflect on. I am not referring to programme transpositions; the April Theses are not the only fruit of the revolution and political reflection cannot consist of efforts to transpose them into the current times. I mean what happened later and to what extent we are — whether we like it or not — a part of a process. The more willingly we realize and admit it, the better our chances of reaching the level of political maturity allowing us to step outside the frames of grotesque isolation.
Apart from important strategic decisions and their ideological conclusions, which are the legacy of October that is too difficult for almost everyone today, there are several different — although repetitive and widespread — practices with roots in the famous year 1917 and following events. Shaking them off on this symbolic anniversary would be a great success.
The Russian Revolution was the most important political event in history. It was the first to overthrow the enormous oppression apparatus of market and monarchy and it unleashed an exceptional potential beyond all speculations about the so-called human nature in the masses.
Unfortunately, it did not come without critical circumstances. The system and its structures did not want to relinquish power. 16 war expeditions from many countries (including Poland) came to its aid. The Red Army defended the revolution at an enormous expense, but the Bolshevik authorities had to deal not only with tremendous ruin in Russia and later in the Soviet Union, but also with the effects of international isolation. The most severe result was the economic collapse and the hopes of remedying it were lost due to the failure of the revolution in a number of European countries, including Germany, in the first half of the 1920s. In such difficult circumstances, demoralization was very probable. Before the end of the civil war, in 1922, Vladimir Lenin stated during the Eighth All-Russian Congress of Soviets:
“Comrade Trotsky speaks of a “workers’ state”. May I say that this is an abstraction. (…) The whole point is that it is not quite a workers’ state. That is where Comrade Trotsky makes one of his main mistakes. (…) ours is a workers’ state with a bureaucratic twist to it.”
A year later, the situation did not improve. On March 2, 1923 in his famous article in Prawda “Better fewer, but better”, Lenin states among other things:
“Our state apparatus is so deplorable, not to say wretched, that we must first think very carefully about how to combat its defects, bearing in mind that these defects are rooted in the past, which, although it has been overthrown, has not yet been overcome, has not yet reached the stage of a culture that has receded into the distant past. I say culture deliberately, because in these matters we can only regard what has become part and parcel of our culture, of our social life, our habits as achieved. We might say that the good in our social system has not been properly studied, understood, and taken to heart; it has been hastily grasped at; it has not been verified or tested, corroborated by experience, and not made durable, etc. Of course, it could not be otherwise in a revolutionary epoch, when development proceeded at such breakneck speed that we passed from tsarism to the Soviet system in a matter of five years.”
This was not the only socio-cultural problem overlapping with the economic ones. In the same year, Trotsky published an important essay on this subject titled “Vodka, the Church, and the Cinema”.
Of course, it is impossible to discuss the problem of political degeneration of the young Soviet state and its causes in just a few paragraphs, as hundreds of books have been written on this subject, but these issues should be mentioned for the sake of general historical fairness, so rare in today’s Poland.
The young Soviet authorities and tired society did not endure the counter-revolution of Stalin and his allies. It was he who ended the October Revolution, creating a weird and terrifying conglomerate of absolute monarchy and a socialist system. Clearly, the creature was evolving through the 70 years of its existence. From the second half of the 1970s, the CPSU was just a normal party in power, but it kept following the patterns and habits formed during the counter-revolution. To our great misfortune, this type of political culture not only survived but also grew stronger.
The Stalinist model of organization, thinking, and acting is currently the dominant pattern on the left.
Of course, I do not mean brutal repressions, murders, exiles, etc., but a totalitarian model of thinking generating typical leftist insanities and its “extravagance of identity”. Ideological uniformity, pressure to unite, tendency to lack transparency, obsession with regulations and accumulation of structures, mutual suspiciousness, obsession with “officiality” (official communication channels, official decisions, official celebrations), lack of respect for individual freedoms and escaping individual responsibility, centralization craze, independence and self-governance phobia, the crazy, almost metaphysical adoration of “the state” without reflecting or even asking about what the state is apart from a sum of officers, persecution manias following the dynamics of looking for spoliers and enemies of the people, etc. I could go on and on.
Simultaneously (it is tempting to say “dialectically”, but it would be stupid), the left, taking by handfuls from the tradition of this model, demonstrates unrestrained complexes about it. All of it forms the basis of an elementary lack of cultural and political autonomy and sense of proportions, which are indispensable in politics. Hence the constant switching between the two extreme poles – opportunism and sectarianism.
There is nothing to celebrate, we have to get down to work.