One hundred years removed from the Russian Revolution, we’re in a moment unlike any in decades. With both neoliberalism and social democracy’s traditional parties in disrepute, new opportunities are finally emerging for the radical left.
Every crisis finds a resolution of some kind, and this one will too. Where we end up depends in large measure on how the Left responds. If we play our cards right, the opening could be the occasion for starting a new cycle of organizing — revitalizing left parties where possible, and starting new ones if they prove to be immune to reform.
But rather than just looking forward, this is also an occasion to look back at the lessons of the past. The Russian Revolution remains the most ambitious experiment in socialist politics, and its successes and failures have to be part of any discussion of how to revitalize the Left. But it isn’t just the Russian experience. We have to place the Bolshevik experiment in the broader story of socialist politics in the twentieth century — alongside examples from Chile, Germany, and Sweden, among others.
There are two broad legacies of the Russian Revolution — an organizational one and an institutional one. By organizational, I mean issues pertaining to building vehicles for collective action in capitalism — unions, parties, and the like. By institutional, I mean the basic structures that will comprise a post-capitalist society — the political system, economic organization, the structure of rights. The organizational dimension pertains to how you build power inside capitalism, and the institutional refers to what you will build after capitalism.
The Left is of two attitudes when it comes to Leninist party organization. One is to see the model as a disaster, or at least as something of a negative experience. The accusation is that Leninism has always and everywhere ended up in authoritarianism. Others have responded by saying, “Well that’s true, but you are confusing Stalinism with Leninism.” In other words, it is really with the advent of Stalin that you see the shutting down of debate.
The defenders of the Leninist party are right that in its early history it was remarkably open and dynamic. But at the same time, the fact is that its global experience since the 1930s veers much closer to its later, undemocratic form. So while Lenin’s party was very democratic, the Leninist party has not been. And we can’t lay the blame solely on Stalin, Zinoviev, or whoever your favorite villain is. A party model with strong and resilient democratic structures should have generated a more diverse set of experiences, not a uniform history of ossification.
That being the case, it’s easy to come to the conclusion, as most progressives do today, that the next left has to reject the Leninist party model. The problem with that view is that no other model has come anywhere as close to being politically effective. All the putative alternatives coming out of the Left since the 1960s — the multi-tendency organizations, the horizontalists, the anarchists and their affinity groups, the movement of movements, etc. — have been able to mobilize for a time, but they have had little success sustaining movements, much less achieving real material gains. Indeed, the cadre-based model has been so successful that every major mobilizational party of the twentieth century replicated it to some extent, even on the Right.
Given that history, it’s hard to imagine a way for the Left to organize itself as a real force without some variant of the structure the early socialists hit upon — a mass cadre-based party with a centralized leadership and internal coherence. Now, maybe that will turn out to not be true. Maybe we will come up with organizational forms that are more open, more diffuse, yet which also manage to get things done. However, given our experience, we don’t really have a basis to reject our most accomplished model.
What we need to do is look back to the party’s early years — prior to 1918, when everybody agrees that it was pretty open and democratic — and study it closely. We need to have a sharp understanding of how they maintained the dynamism that made it the most successful organization of its time — where criticizing the leadership was taken as a right, a basic part of what it meant to be a party member. Were there institutional mechanisms that created the culture of debate and accountability, beyond the usual ones of elections and newsletters? Or was it simply dependent, in the end, on a leadership committed to those values?
If there were institutional mechanisms in place which ensured democracy then we could just copy them, put them in place. But if it was a question of a contingent internal culture, it means it means that democratic practices have to depend on a kind of moral commitment — which will be harder to replicate, because leaders tend to want to close down democracy, not uphold it. But that’s why it’s important to study the lesson and the actual practice to see where that democracy came from.
The second organizational issue is that of the party’s relationship to its base. Here the Russian Revolution teaches us something. In Cold War historiography, the Bolsheviks are depicted as having taken power through something like a coup. The idea is that they really didn’t have a mass base, that they were a small group of fanatically committed ideologues who imposed a dictatorship. But what recent historians have shown, in dramatic detail, is that the main reason the Bolsheviks were able to take and hold onto power was that of all the parties in Russia, they had the deepest, strongest, and firmest links to the working class in the country’s major industrial centers. This is why it happened that, with every shift in working-class political mood — particularly in Petrograd but also in Moscow — in the months leading up to the capture of power, it was the Bolsheviks who were the most keenly aware of those shifts, able to understand the situation, and therefore able to generate slogans and programs that captured the popular consciousness.
The Bolsheviks weren’t alone in this outlook. It was taken for granted by all socialist parties in the interwar years that the foundation to their political strategy was to be anchored in the everyday life of their base. And not just in the West. This was the sine qua non of socialism across the world. And it worked. The great era of left expansion — from the early 1900s to the early 1950s — happened because the parties were parties in, of, and for the laboring poor.
The strategy was successful for several reasons. First and most importantly, it enabled those organizations to generate programs that represented their base’s real interests, since the parties were in constant communication with them — since they fought alongside the base every day, in the workplace and in the neighborhood. Second, it gave the party cadre enormous legitimacy at the mass level, again because they were there through thick and thin. This legitimacy was the essential condition for promoting political struggle, since when cadre encouraged their base to undertake any kind of action, they had the trust and support needed to succeed. Third, this deep and organic connection also supported a vibrant internal culture — of democracy and accountability. A party immersed in everyday working-class life and struggle not only could sustain a democratic culture, but benefited from it. After all, a democratic culture was one of the essential preconditions for gaining the trust and support of the class. Having a deep base didn’t guarantee success, but not having one guaranteed failure and marginalization.
This is, of course, what most differentiates the early socialist parties from left groups in the West today. The socialist left is only tenuously connected to working-class communities, if at all. By and large, it is structurally separated from workers, and operates mostly as small groups in middle-class settings — campuses, nonprofits, study groups, and so on. This has several important consequences. First of all, unlike the traditional labor left, it cannot actually organize and lead working-class struggles, because it is physically separated from that class. The overwhelming bulk of its political engagement is supportive and reactive — showing up for a spell at a picket line, spreading the word, trying to drum up sympathy. But this means that it is entirely dependent on other people’s organizing, since it is not in a position to initiate struggle itself.
Second, its confinement to these environments means that for it to maintain its socialist commitments, it has to socialize its members into sympathizing with another class’s interests and another class’s oppression. This is very different from traditional left parties, which were in working-class settings, were able to recruit from within that class, and hence trained their members to fight around their own material interests. Struggle was a necessity for these earlier groups, because they were fighting for their members’ own livelihoods and their own well-being.
Today’s groups have to largely imagine what those interests are, since they can’t learn about them through direct engagement. They mostly do so by reading about past events and then trying to find parallels to the current scene. But this makes it hard to develop strategy. It is almost impossible to be innovative, since most members are not directly experiencing changes in the workplace, nor are they in a position to try new initiatives. This naturally leads to a kind of dogmatism, since the only thing they really know is what worked in the past.
The long-term result of being isolated from workers is that these organizations become a haven for a kind of lifestyle politics for morally committed students and professionals. They provide members with a means to feel like they’re involved in change, but the involvement is highly individualistic and confined largely to acts of symbolic solidarity. Since real organizing is typically off the table, energy tends to be directed inward, toward the culture and characteristics of the group itself. Anyone who comes to the United States from countries with more radical political traditions can’t help but be struck by how shrill, moralistic, but ultimately apolitical debates are within the Left here. They tend to be about language, individual identity, body language, consumption habits, and the like. This is a natural consequence of a “left” that’s in fact small groups of people in middle-class settings who have no organic way of getting trained in class politics. It has been this way for so long that even the idea of being based in the working class is seen as either quaint or unnecessary.
If the Left is going to get anywhere, if it’s going to recapture the role it once had, as the engine of social justice, it will only do so by replanting itself within laboring communities. As of yet, nobody has shown any evidence that changes of the scale we need — to put people over profits, to save the environment, to eradicate social oppressions — can be achieved without taking on capital. And how do you do that if you don’t harness the capacity of the one social force that can bring capital to heel — the class that generates its profits?
It isn’t just the Russian case, but the entire tradition of socialism stretching back a century and a half that demonstrates this basic truth. A left isolated from labor is a showpiece, not a political force.
On the question of strategy, the October Revolution is perhaps less instructive. The Bolshevik seizure of power was not a coup, but it did embody a violent and sudden overthrow of a regime, in a context of state breakdown and military disintegration. One might describe this as a strategy of a ruptural break with capitalism.
Now there’s no doubt that the decades from the early twentieth century all the way to the Spanish Civil War could be described as a revolutionary period. It was an era in which the possibility of rupture could be seriously contemplated and a strategy built around it. There were lots of socialists who advocated for a more gradualist approach, but the revolutionaries who criticized them weren’t living in a dream world.
The Russian road, as it were, was for many parties a viable one. But starting in the 1950s, openings for this kind of strategy narrowed. And today, it seems entirely hallucinatory to think about socialism through this lens. This is indubitably true in the advanced capitalist world, but it also holds for much of the South. Today, the state has infinitely greater legitimacy with the population than European states did a century ago. Further, its coercive power, its power of surveillance, and the ruling class’s internal cohesiveness give the social order a stability that is orders of magnitude greater than it had in 1917. What that means is, while we can allow for and perhaps hope for the emergence of revolutionary conditions where state breakdown is really on the cards, we can’t build a political strategy around it as an expectation — we can’t take it as the Left’s fundamental strategic perspective. Today, the political stability of the state is a reality that the Left has to acknowledge. What is in crisis right now is the neoliberal model of capitalism, not capitalism itself.
If this is so, then the lessons that the Russian experience has to offer — as a model of socialist transition — are limited. Our strategic perspective has to downplay the centrality of a revolutionary rupture and navigate a more gradualist approach. For the foreseeable future, left strategy has to revolve around building a movement to pressure the state, gain power within it, change the institutional structure of capitalism, and erode the structural power of capital — rather than vaulting over it. This entails a combination of electoral and mobilizational politics.
You build a party based in labor, you strengthen the organizational capacity of the class, you take on employers in the workplace and create rings of power in civil society, and you use this social power to push through policy reforms by participating in electoral politics. The reforms should have the dual effect of making future organizing easier, and also constraining the power of capital to undermine them down the road. There are many names for a strategy of this kind — non-reformist reforms, revolutionary reforms. But whatever you call it, it entails a more gradual approach than the ones available to the Bolsheviks.
But that means that we have to carefully study the experience of parties and countries that fell short of socialism but achieved real organizational and political gains nonetheless. We need to study social democracy, particularly its more ambitious variants. First of all, to understand how they combined electoral and non-electoral dimensions in an overall strategic perspective. This also entails studying their legislation, the economic models they implemented, how they used the state, how they dealt with capital’s structural power and its hostility to labor’s advance. The gains made by the most advanced social democracies, like the Nordic countries, are quite extraordinary, and their ritual denigration by the Left as merely “reformist” are wrongheaded. Those achievements came through struggle and were fought against tooth and nail by ruling elites.
The most important reason to study the history of social democracy, however, is to understand its limitations. This is why it can’t be dismissed as “merely” reformist. If you don’t understand why they failed, you will simply repeat their failure. It’s important to appreciate that, whatever else happens, if people like Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders take power in the next few years, their political agenda will broadly hew to the template laid down by social democracy.
This is great in many ways, but social democracy was a spent force by the 1980s; its parties degenerated into a managerial ethos; their reformist agenda was halted and then reversed; and they have proven to be largely uninterested in revitalizing their own legacy. For this phenomenon to be so widespread and so pervasive means that it can’t have been because of individual failings and treachery. There was something structural behind it. And this means in turn that the Left needs to understand the structural roots of the failure to at least have a fighting chance at avoiding the same fate. Hence, while we need to understand how something as ambitious as the Meidner plan came about in Sweden in the late 1970s, we also need to see why it was defeated, and why the Social Democratic Party became increasingly conservative in the following years.
I won’t dwell on the obvious point, which is that the lesson from October is in many ways a negative one — we have to reject wholesale the political model generated by the Bolsheviks, of a one-party dictatorship and the abrogation of basic liberties.
It was a calamitous mistake to denigrate liberal rights as “bourgeois,” which many Marxists of the early twentieth century did, implying that those rights were illusory or fraudulent in some way. This rhetorical ploy made it far easier for those rights to be extinguished by Stalin and before him, by Lenin himself. Liberal rights were all fought for and won by working-class movements, not by liberal capitalists. Any left worth its salt has to protect and deepen those rights, not throw them aside.
What is more challenging is the issue of economic planning. We have to start with the observation that the expectation of a centrally planned economy simply replacing the market has no empirical foundation. We can want planning to work, but we have no evidence that it can. Every attempt to put it in place for more than short durations has met with failure. The Russian experience is the most elaborate example of that. And the fact of its failure has to be acknowledged, not sidestepped. It won’t do to say, as many Marxists do, that “that wasn’t really socialism, so it doesn’t count.” It may not have been socialism — and maybe real socialism with real democracy and real workers’ councils and real computers will make it work. But the burden of proof is entirely on those socialists who say it will. The argument can’t be won with a wave of the hand and dismissal of the past century’s experience.
In other words, we have to seriously consider the possibility that planning as envisioned by Marx might not be a real option. Any discussion has to proceed with a close examination of the Soviet experience, to try to assess if its failure was due to the particular way planning was instituted, or whether the lesson is that a modern industrial economy is just not amenable to planning. It’s quite astonishing how little attention this issue gets on the Left today, compared to, say, the energy poured into deconstructing Bollywood movies.
In any case, given the dubious record of central planning, we have to seriously consider that a post-capitalist economy might have to take the form of some sort of market socialism. There are many models on the Left of this kind of economy, and they all have different features. What’s important is that whatever market socialism’s institutional structure, the principles underlying its design are faithful to what socialists seek — putting people before profits. More elaborately, whatever the model turns out to be, it will differ from capitalism in that:
- The market will be constrained so it isn’t the arbiter of people’s basic well-being
- Economic decision-makers will be democratically accountable
- Wealth inequalities will not be allowed to translate into political inequalities
There will, of course, be other principles constraining the institutional design. But it is hard to imagine any acceptable model of socialism — market or planned — that eschews any of the ones listed. An economy that contravenes any one of these principles will probably not qualify as socialist, at least not in the sense that leftists have understood the concept.
Being clear about what we want out of an economy allows us to understand what is at stake. Planning is not desirable for its own sake. It has always been embraced as a means to an end, and the basic end socialists seek is a humane and just social order. It might turn out that full planning is not only unrealistic, but also unnecessary — maybe the fundamental goals that socialist seek are in fact achievable through a market socialism after all. It might even be the case that central planning is in tension with some dimensions of social justice.
One of the worst legacies of the Second International era was to identify socialism with central planning. That equation should never again be made. Economic models are not ends in themselves, but instruments for achieving what we’re really after — a society in which people are able to treat one another as ends, not as means.
We know from the last century of socialist efforts that the path to a more egalitarian order goes through a confrontation with capital, not around it. And the only parties that have ever had any real success in this endeavor have been mass-based cadre parties with deep roots in the laboring classes. The biggest challenge right now for the Left is to cut the umbilical cord tying it to campuses and nonprofits and return to immersing itself in the milieu of labor. Any viable left has to also embrace electoral politics as the other node of a two-pronged strategy, in which power at the base is combined with a parliamentary wing, each feeding the other. At this moment, the parliamentary dimension seems to be opening up faster than the one at the base — the Left should jump in, capitalize on it, and then use its gains to build the base. At the same time, we need to deepen the discussion of what we’re fighting for.
It is clear that a viable socialism will be a pluralistic, multiparty order with a significant rolling back of the market. How far we push it back depends in large measure on practical questions about what is feasible and what is not. But precisely because a ruptural strategy isn’t on the table, we must start down the road of social democracy and then to democratic socialism. We have a lot of experience about how to get to the former, not so much about the latter.