The first centennial of the Russian Revolution occurred on November 7, 2017 [October 25, according to the Julian calendar, in use at the time]. It shook the whole world and its effects transformed the history of humankind. With this development in mind, we need to think about the present state of the anti-capitalist revolution.
The word “revolution” originated in astronomy, from the Latin “revolutio.” It signifies movement of the heavenly bodies around their axis in a mechanistic, monotonous, and unchanging way. Its socialist meaning refers to something quite different: radical change of the capitalist system aimed at abruptly interrupting the inertia of exploitations, inequality, and injustice.
After 1917, revolution entailed modification of the means of capitalist production inasmuch as the Bolsheviks came to power in Czarist Russia through an anti-capitalist project and with the installation of a new form of social organization
The Russian experience fed into anti-capitalistic struggles on five continents. The great events of the 20th century (the short version, 1914 – 1991) were tied directly or indirectly to the impact of the Russian Revolution, or – said in a more forceful way – to fear it generated among the dominant classes and to hopes it stimulated among the exploited and destitute. Without appreciation of this double impact, it’s impossible to understand the impact of the Russian Revolution. Fear reveals itself as anti-communism, fascism, criminal dictatorships of the extreme right, torture, and defense of the “free world” on the part of U.S. imperialism and its lackeys. Creation of the welfare state is associated with fear given that it appeared in certain parts of Europe after the Second World War as a means for warding off revolution. That’s why people in Western Europe jokingly say that each missile successfully tested in the USSR automatically led to a wage increase for workers on that continent.
That fear bounced back onto Russia itself, and then in the USSR, in the form of “war communism” and the civil war (1917 – 1921) that bloodied the nascent revolution, and left a permanent trail throughout Soviet history, until the USSR shamefully dissolved in 1991. It’s of course not the only reason, but the notion of fear helps us understand the growing bureaucratization, police-type thinking, repression, persecution of the political opposition, and the state of permanent exception that prevented the USSR from consolidating its socialist system and that, over the long run, would finish off this first anti-capitalist project.
In regard to the hope we referred to, the Russian Revolution opened the road to great transformations in the 20th century. The ones to be emphasized are: the cycle of revolutions in several countries (China, Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua etc.) and the anti-colonial and national liberation movements. The mere fact of the Russian Revolution propelled repeated struggles by workers, small farmers, and plebian sectors from the end of the 1910 decade onward that led to social and democratic victories in a variety of regions. In that sense, the October Revolution inaugurated a new agenda in the history of humanity: the matter of equality. That was something the French Revolution of 1789 had not posed in the arena of practice, although that word does figure in its most famous slogan: “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” In 1917, for the first time, a program conducive for achieving equality was devised, and that goal became an extraordinary mobilizing incentive for poor and working people. We know that from the histories of the workers movement and world socialism.
In the end, propagators of fear, and not of hope, intruded, and biased and unilateral interpretations by the winners (representing capitalism) have lingered in the memory of humankind. Their claim is that the socialist project is an accumulation of crimes and errors. They want to erase anti-capitalistic struggles from the collective memory of humanity. The dramatic and contradictory history of the socialist and revolutionary project in the 20th century might best be described with words from the English writer Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way”
Between 1989 and 1991 bureaucratic socialism as constructed in the USSR and Eastern Europe collapsed; the process led to proclamations of the end of history and capitalism as finally the winner. That happened, supposedly, through the intrinsic superiority of the “market economy,” which was now being presented as synonymous with parliamentary democracy, as practiced in the United States. What came next, and continuing today with its main themes, has been the dismantling of social conquests enjoyed by workers and others in the USSR and the countries of bureaucratic socialism. The process has included privatization of public properties, pervasive commercialization, rampant corruption, and conversion of those countries to banana republics, subservient to the dictates of international capitalism. The disappearance of the USSR was accompanied not only by terrible set-backs for people living there, but negative effects extending also throughout the entire planet. Capitalism in its neoliberal version has been imposed in five continents, and has swept away anything having to do with conquests or social achievements by the people and by workers.
The triumph of capitalism has universalized its contradictions and miseries. What stands out is inequality on a scale wide enough to pervade individual countries and exist on a worldwide plane. Having eradicated the “communist enemy,” world capitalism abandoned its social – democratic mask used as a cover, and gave free rein to boundless accumulation and, as a result, has achieved more aberrant parameters of inequality than ever before in history and has accelerated the destruction of nature. Of course, triumphant capitalism in 1989 and 1991 mentioned none of this, because the prediction at that time was for an era of prosperity and splendor for all of humanity as people entered the orbit of capitalist production and consumption. Democracy would come about quite simply, as an accessory to the market economy. They proclaimed a kind of perpetual peace that would follow the disappearance of the USSR. None of this happened. Today, inequality is generalized and is the result of intensified exploitation of the class that lives by working, in the newly industrialized countries where in many regions where maquiladora – type assembly plants are scattered about.
As regards democracy and what it means fundamentally in the end, it never arrived. Capitalists simply imposed misnamed “free elections,” very much in the U. S. style, that had no major significance, especially by way of changing the lives of poor and working people. Their only liberty is that of, at certain times, choosing the executioners that are going to cut their necks.
Perpetual peace has been converted into permanent war fostered by the United States. That’s been so ever since 1989 when the United States invaded Panama and shed a lot of blood, leaving thousands of deaths in its path. In the last 28 years imperialism has put forth more wars of conquest and aggression than were waged during the Cold War.
The false promises of the “new world order” come next. Things get complicated when we think of the magnitude of the crisis of civilization we are passing through. What’s involved is the failure of the capitalists’ civilization. One symptom of this break in our civilization is evident in the destruction of ecosystems, the sixth [global mass] extinction of species that is on the way (the fifth one was 60 million years ago), and contamination of waters, deforestation, and “climate change” – so-called. In sum, capitalism is trying to overcome natural limits with the object of guaranteeing infinite growth and an exponential accumulation of capital. With this futile pretension, capitalism endangers the survival of humanity.
Despite the contradictions of capitalism, its defenders and apologists have succeeded in imposing an ideological dictate saying that capitalism is insurmountable, that it’s the end of history, and that one only has to know how to adapt, because it’s part of human nature. That’s the way things are and there’s no space for revolution, but space only for adapting to triumphant capitalism. In various circles associated the capitalist order of things, it’s being said, and tirelessly, that revolution is an impossibility because capitalism is insurmountable. And besides, they say, capitalism is an expression of the human condition alleged to be egotistical, competitive, and predatory. And more, the revolutionary experiences of the 20th century have demonstrated the failure of any project that tries to move beyond the dominion of capital. Others, associated with various tendencies of postmodern thought, hold that the very idea of revolution is inadequate because it’s a modern construct and Eurocentric, one that can’t be valid or applicable in the present, and more so because it would carry the heavy burden of being progressive.
These misgivings skirt the basic problem: in recent decades a social relationship, capitalism, has come to dominate, even at the global level. Whether we like it or not is another matter. And this social relationship has been pushed out to the last corner of the world’s periphery, evident in particular with the indigenous communities of our America. This extension has occurred in tandem with features taking root that are destructive for human beings and nature. Faustian zeal for accumulation and unstoppable growth has put the existence of humanity itself in danger, beginning with poorest of the poor. If that’s the way things are, it’s an oxymoron to suppose the indefinite continuation of capitalism. That’s so especially now with intensified exploitation of men and women driving limitless development of productive forces, which in turn are to be converted into destructive forces that may lead us to the abyss, just as climate change – misnamed – is doing right now.
A second aspect having to be emphasized relates to confronting the anti-values of capitalism. These have become a new common sense, as if they were inherent characteristics of human nature – the competition, egoism, individualism, squandering, inequality, unbridled zeal for acquiring and accumulating, and more: arrogance in both profiteering and showing off luxury and lavish consumption, and scorn for other human beings and for animals. We are obliged to think about a civilizing change that would reclaim values of equality, fraternity, mutual help, solidarity, frugality, respect for nature, and de-commercialization. And struggle for these human values requires that transformation of capitalist civilization be on our agenda, and soon.
Under such conditions revolution is more necessary now than in 1917. Revolution is no dream because it’s based on internal contradictions of capitalism, on class struggle unfolding within, on oppressed people responding to their interests, on environmental destruction tearing nature itself apart, and on practical demonstration that capitalism leads to unbearable inequality. It generates opulence and arrogance for a tiny minority, while it sweeps away peoples and ecosystems on a scale never before seen in history.
Here German thinker Walter Benjamin’s notion of revolution is quite relevant; he proclaimed that revolutions are anti-progressive because in practice they break with the illusion of an ascendant progress, lineal and accumulative. He might have argued something like, “Marx had said that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps things happen in another way. It could be that revolutions are the hand by which humanity puts on the emergency brakes.” Revolution is necessary today in order to halt the planetary catastrophe generated by capitalism that is destroying everything in its path – men, women, children, animals, and natural resources – in the name of an idolized technological progress that is sustained through a minority’s quest for profits and generalized exploitation of workers.
Socialism must be torn away from the mythology of progress and from a teleological vision of history. It’s possible in that sense and, as a breakthrough for humanity, is imperative. But that doesn’t mean it’s inevitable. It’s a social, ecological, and moral necessity, a rational quest, a concrete utopia underlying our struggles and our reason for existing. We have to keep on struggling although the enemy may have won, as Bertolt Brecht said.
The revolutions of the 2st century will differ from those of the 20th century, because they have to deal with both the classical problems generated by capitalism and sustained through worker-capital contradictions and new problems. Among these, the destruction of nature and domination by patriarchy stand out. In this struggle the past is as important as the future – the past for recovering the memory of struggles by the oppressed in all eras, among them revolutionaries of the 20th century who fought to establish an anti-capitalist order of things. The future is open and unpredictable, as unpredictable as revolutions taking place will be.
To close: it’s enough today to remember the words of Voltaire, who after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 affirmed: “to say that everything goes well, and to do so in an absolute sense without hope for a future, is nothing more than an insult to the pains of our life.” This maybe applies to the world of today, where only a cynic could maintain that everything is fine with really existing capitalism, when the only thing that is clear is that if things continue as they are now, eventually the precipice will be waiting for us: that is, unless oppressed people of the world say “Enough” and begin the construction of a new civilizing order that goes beyond the dominion of capital.
W. T. Whitney Jr. translated.
Renán Vega Cantor is professor of history at the National Pedagogical University in Bogota, Colombia. His books include: Marx and the 21st century (1998), Planetary Chaos (1999), and Neoliberalism: Myth and Reality (1999), The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in 2008 awarded him its Liberator Prize for his book An Uncertain World, a World for Learning and Teaching. He edits the journal Strategic Center for Alternative Thought (CEPA).