On 7 November, the world marked 100 years since the Russian Revolution: the brief seizure of power by a socialist workers’ movement that showed millions that a better world is possible.
The centenary is both an inspiring occasion and a sobering one. Inspiring because it reminds us that the vision we fight for can become a reality: a working class movement “forever freeing the whole of society from exploitation, oppression, class struggles”, in the words of Engels. Sobering because a century is a long time. It has been 100 years since humanity’s best attempt at socialism, and it has taken nearly that long to dislodge the political and psychological boulder of Stalinism that blocked almost every chance to repeat the great experiment.
Socialists marked the occasions with meetings and celebrations, much as socialists a century ago marked anniversaries of the Paris Commune. Like those revolutionaries, we know we have a steep path to climb. The generation of 1917 were eventually defeated, but they bequeathed a gift to us: a century later, their example shows us that victory is possible.
And we can take courage from the nervousness of our ideological enemies. Although the socialist left is much weaker than it was in 1917, the defenders of the capitalist system find themselves in disarray. Their political institutions are becoming unpredictable and sometimes uncontrollable. Their political leaders run chaotic, directionless governments. They have no solution for economic stagnation. They can no longer pretend, as they could through much of the 1990s, that they have triumphed forever.
The unease is reflected by their hired intellectuals. With typical political cowardice and paralysis, most Australian newspapers ignored the anniversary, preferring to focus on the October centenary of the Battle of Beersheba. The Age, exemplifying the abject intellectual debasement of the Australian liberal press, published “Ten Revolutionary Lessons in Crisis Management” (number one: “Energise any campaign with a pithy slogan”). When the barricade fighting begins, Fairfax journalists will be found writing networking tips for fascist militia commanders.
The open reactionaries of the Murdoch press showed a little more mettle, complaining that Lenin’s “fetid disease still lingers” in hostility to the “1%” and political appeals to “the people”.
Simultaneously hysterical and accurate, they identify a growing trend towards egalitarian and democratic politics – and that this trend, if it continues to develop, represents a threat to the corrupt and violent powers that be.
But the political crisis in Australia has yet to develop, so our intellectuals can remain complacent. In the US, newspapers were compelled to consider the centenary as they contemplate whether their political order is headed into an abyss. This year was an annus horribilis for US liberal intellectuals. Their attempts to defend the existing system, in the person of Hillary Clinton, ended in catastrophe.
The Democrats are ideologically bereft. Newspapers are held in contempt. Every day another Hollywood liberal or Democratic senator stands revealed as a two-faced sex pest. On the young left, hatred of liberal compromise is commonplace, as is openness to political radicalism and socialism. The New York Times was compelled to run a series, “Red Century”, fretting over proletarian insurrection.
Liberal panic, cravenness and idiocy were all made plain in Anne Applebaum’s Washington Post column, “100 years later, Bolshevism is back. And we should be worried”. Applebaum is meant to be a Russia expert. But almost every claim she makes about the revolution is a howler.
The column is a triumph of mendacity. In one typical example, Applebaum claims that by 1917 Lenin had spent “the previous 20 years fighting against ‘bourgeois democracy’ and arguing virulently against elections and parties”. In fact, Lenin had organised and led a party with the primary goal of winning political democracy in Russia, as is well known to all who have made even a cursory examination of his life. Applebaum is a reminder that most liberal “experts” on revolutions are nothing more than trained slanderers and charlatans, whose primary goal is not historical investigation, but the undermining of any criticism of the existing order.
There’s nothing new in that. But Applebaum’s identification of “neo-Bolshevism” is of interest. It includes mass political resistance to austerity, in Syriza and Jeremy Corbyn, and US campus socialists who teach a “dark, negative version of American history”. It also includes Trump, his quasi-fascist supporters and Central European nationalist movements such as Poland’s Law and Justice Party. And it includes any disruption of neoliberal politics, such as the 2016 Brexit referendum. Anything that Tony Blair or Hillary Clinton might not like is “neo-Bolshevism” and to be feared.
These things have little in common. But they emerge from a unified phenomenon, and are cause for both concern and optimism in this centenary year. Liberals are struggling to maintain their ideological leadership. It is harder and harder to defend the existing order, its politicians, its newspapers and its economic outcomes. Figures such as Applebaum and Clinton cannot define the future. Capitalism’s official politics is plunging more towards nationalist lunacy, authoritarianism and, perhaps, war.
The Russian Revolution teaches us that we need not be spectators. In the same month a century ago, there was imperialist slaughter in the Battle of Beersheba and working class heroism in the Russian uprising. Our rulers can commemorate the former, even as they drive us towards a repeat on a grander scale. We can commemorate the other, and be grateful that, in the terrible century that followed it, some kept alive the legacy and meaning of the triumph of socialist revolution in Russia.
The victory of the Bolsheviks – though fleeting and bought at great cost – can give us hope that we can repeat and better their achievements, no matter how hard the circumstances may be.