Introduction: Reflections toward “Recentering” Revolution


Concluding an essay written in the twilight years of the Soviet Union, Robin Blackburn quoted Raymond Williams to argue that it is “only in very complex ways, and by moving confidently towards very complex societies, that we can defeat imperialism and capitalism and begin that construction of many socialisms which will liberate and draw upon our real and now threatened energies.”1 The invocation of complexity corresponded to the left’s self-critical mood in those times – indeed what more stark contrast is there to earlier impulses toward “monolithic unity”? In their polemic with the then ascendant neoliberalism, the left in its multiple guises co-opted several liberal ideas and such concepts as “dispersed” decision makers, stakeholders, empowerment, and a social movement pluralism entered our discourse. Although both Blackburn and Williams understood the movement toward complexity as a dialectical one involving a simultaneous drive toward simplicity, left thinking would only recover the second part of this dialectical movement with the Latin American Pink Tide, the crash of 2007-8, and the revival of revolutionary hopes sparked by the Arab Spring. Revolution, of course, is the ultimate dialectic of complexity and simplicity – a multitude of energies, the blossoming of a hundred flowers of peculiarity, somehow midwifed into a radical, society-wide break with past practices, the creation of a simple before and after, of ancien régime and new order.

Now, a quarter century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with a receding of the tide that revived revolutionary currents, coinciding with the centenary of the Russian Revolution, Socialism and Democracy finds itself with an organic clustering of articles, reflections and reviews directly engaging revolution and its consequences.2 With the benefit of hindsight, we now see the lifetime of the Russian Revolution as coterminous with the “short” twentieth century (see Wallis’s review of Hobsbawm’s Fractured Times in this issue). Since Blackburn’s reflections, even with the passage of more than 25 years filled with momentous events, breaks of many sorts, and novel modes of communication, no meaningful rupture with the past has yet been identified to characterize our new century or era. In this sense, we are still in the post­-Russian Revolution moment. Nonetheless, there are movements and explorations in multiple directions. In this vein, Valentine Moghadam’s “Feminism and the Future of Revolution” constructs a data set composed of democratic transitions, social movements and revolutions, to explore the relationships between revolutionary leadership, ideology, and organization, on the one hand, and revolutionary and feminist outcomes on the other. Even taking her broad data set as background, the Russian Revolution remains a salient event.

Many recent revolutionary thinkers have similarly widened the aperture of transformative experiences well beyond the European narrative, as evidenced most notably by George Ciccariello-Maher’s Decolonizing Dialectics’ turn to anti- and pre-colonial resistances.3 Writing in the South African context, Vishwas Satgar laments the “romanticised understanding of the 1917 Russian Revolution or of the ‘golden years of social democracy’” which mitigates a fuller appreciation of “the African experience of revolutionary and transformative change”; he therefore calls for a critical appreciation of the “entire inheritance of 20th century socialism.”4 As necessary as this task is, it will likely require a re-engagement with the Russian Revolution, given the importance of the Soviet Union, either directly or indirectly, to most of the African attempts at fostering alternatives to capitalism. No wonder then that even Ciccariello-Maher’s resurrection of Georges Sorel in service of “decolonizing dialectics” appeals, in part, to the latter’s defense of the Russian Revolution.

What then is the significance of the Russian Revolution? Does it lie only in its novelty as the first revolution to take and hold power in the name of the working class? In its attempt to build socialism? Have recent events, not least the dissolution of the project itself, enriched our understanding of its meaning? In the essays and reviews that follow we find answers leading in many directions. Three extremely broad questions emerge: (1) What political economy tools do we have for understanding the Soviet experience? (2) What is the relationship between organizational forms and revolution? (3) How are we to understand the subjectivity of the revolution in terms of ideas and leadership? Although the articles herein stand alone and were never explicitly tasked with answering these questions, their individual content does bear on them.

1. Political Economy

In his review of Samir Amin’s Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism, Mat Callahan notes that the significance of Soviet Union and by inference, the revolution which created it, lies less in its socialism than in its constituting an obstacle to the imperial project. Aijaz Ahmad’s stirring recounting of the events of 1917, in “The Originality of the October Revolution,” however, brings together the national and class dimensions of the revolution. Although Russia constituted a vast colonial empire, second only to the British Empire in terms of territory, it was one “that was too weak to acquire colonies too far from the Russian territory,” and it therefore contained a “bundle of contradictions” within its borders. In addition, therefore, to the class questions generated by its expanding capitalism, the Russian state would provide rich grounds for debating national questions, more so than the consolidated capitalism and imperialism of Western European states. Its experience would therefore have greater relevance for oppressed nations and largely peasant countries that were home to the overwhelming majority of humanity.

Russian innovations in Marxist thinking, framed by Gramsci as a “revolution against Capital,” therefore constituted a challenge to stageist thinking, i.e. the hypothesis that there is a linear progression of modes of production that ascend from communalism and slavery, through feudalism, capitalism, and then socialism, each with greater levels of productivity.5 This topic, of course, returns us to an enduring set of cleavages over the course of the Russian Revolution. Both Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development and Stalin’s socialism-in-one-country challenge traditional stageist thinking. Moghadam’s aforementioned data set similarly, albeit unintentionally and with the benefit of a century’s worth of diverse radical experiences and transitions, affirms a diversity of historical pathways – even if all are shaped by similar global economic conditions and the concomitant extreme polarizations of wealth and poverty.

But Suvin also reminds us that challenging stageism, with an emphasis on human agency and the class struggle, does not allow us to dispense with problems of economic development and the development of productive forces. Indeed his critique of the Soviet Union focuses on the one-sided attempt to develop these forces via commandist methods. For him then, the Soviet Union was not therefore either a state capitalism or deformed workers state, but much more a hybrid formation much like the archaeopteryx – a now extinct, but transitional genus of bird-like dinosaurs exhibiting features of both its origins (dinosaurs) and its successors (birds); the Soviet Union baring pre-capitalist, capitalist and proto-socialist characteristics.

2. Organization

The political economy questions quickly yield to organizational ones. This is necessarily the case, for in a state normatively and politically committed to socialism, the constitution of class power.6 It, however, could be asserted via organizational means, especially with rationalizations made available by the novel tasks of constructing socialism. Meyer therefore takes seriously Stalin’s Promethean challenge to build an alternative to capitalism in adverse conditions. Arguing against any reflex rejection of the experience, and implicitly, its homogenization into an opaque phenomenon labelled “Stalinism.” He turns to Stephen Kotkin’s monumental biography to reflect on the “fit” between Stalin and the imperatives of leadership in the vast multinational state. Indeed, much is to be learned from Kotkin’s labors, although there is the danger that some may only find new wine for old intoxications. This is particularly the case if one wishes to engage the leadership succession process after the October revolution; this issue’s reviews by Gerald Meyer, Gover Furr, and Suren Moodliar (the present author) respond in diverse ways to this topic.

Setting aside the post-Lenin succession struggles and matters of legitimacy, one must surely agree with Meyer in his emphasis on the challenge not only of economic development, but also of building a political party that had to encompass the entire Soviet Union and incorporate energies and leaderships that were complete strangers to the Bolshevik origin story in the big cities of 1917. This is no modest achievement and one that comes close to rivaling Trotsky’s military accomplishments in defeating imperial invasion and White reaction.

Although the debates over post-Lenin leadership succession, Stalin’s revolutionary legitimacy, and the ultimate legacy for the peoples of the former USSR and for Marxism, will likely rage on well into the future, fueled rather than settled by new access to archives, it is the merit of Meyer’s paper that he follows Kotkin’s emphasis on the challenges of post-revolution national survival, state building, and development to shift the terrain of the conversation from a dispute over Lenin’s successors to real lessons that may be helpful for the contemporary left.

As with the reviews by Moodliar and Furr, Meyer, of course, presents a personal reflection informed as much by concerns about the 21st century left as by strongly held views about the Stalin he reveres. Whatever our personal concerns about engaging with Stalin and his legacy, something that both Furr and Meyer feel strongly about, a clinical reading of their work and Kotkin’s seems warranted if we are to understand how it was that bureaucratic power could be so successfully converted into political power. While traditional critiques of Stalin focus on this question, they fail to problematize the construction of bureaucratic power, taking it instead as a given. Perhaps unfairly, this failure lends credence to charges of organizational ineptitude that have followed both Trotsky and the movements that are inspired by his example. However, if the multifold accusations of conspiracies and plots leveled at Trotsky have any degree of validity, then he may have been somewhat more efficacious than the conditions of terror and clandestine organizing may lead one to expect. For this reason, it is vital that the views and research of those who may champion an otherwise unacceptable Stalin find airing in publications that are resolute in their commitment to socialist democracy.

In a recent speech on “Lessons of the Russian Revolution,” Vivek Chibber (editor of Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Strategy) organizes his discussion of the organizational legacy of the revolution along three dimensions: (1) the internal structure of the party; (2) the party and its base; (3) strategy and vision.7 Addressing the first dimension leads to his endorsing of the Leninist party’s relative openness in its early years and its capacity for decisive action. This reading is endorsed by both Ahmad’s narrative and China Miéville’s October (reviewed separately by Moodliar and Furr in this issue).

Suvin also takes democracy and internal openness as a prerequisite for any attempt at socialist construction. Actual historical experience does not furnish sufficient evidence of this imperative. In fact, Joan Roelofs’ review of Axel Honneth’s The Idea of Socialism notes that his critique of revolutionary socialist economic thinking assumes a relatively homogenous commitment to command economies. But as Suvin demonstrates, there was some variety of approaches within even the Eastern European and Soviet experiences, and he specifically calls attention to the relatively open and democratic deliberations about national economic strategy in the Russia/USSR from 1920 to 1926, Yugoslavia from 1955 to 1965, and Cuba from 1961 to 1964 (and one might well add the present period in that besieged socialist experiment).

Chibber’s second topic, the party and its base, speaks to the degree to which the party is engaged in the life of its base and therefore the extent to which it can express both its moods and its interests. This concern finds important affirmation in Moghadam’s observation that the makeup and ideology of revolutionary leadership helps determine outcomes of the revolution. In her case, feminist commitments and women’s participation in leadership explain whether a revolution has patriarchal or feminist outcomes.

With respect to Chibber’s third dimension, organizational strategy and vision, all contributions accept the need for one or other form of organizing center. Both Suvin and Moghadam appeal to organization on a global scale, surpassing even the first three Internationals in breath and scale. Ironically, however, as much as there may be such a need, actual resources for a global scale organization are sorely lacking. Moghadam however finds hope in the World Social Forum process and accordingly makes recommendations for its reform in order that it may provide the space for coordinating revolutionary activity.

3. Conclusion: Utopias

Lenin, who imagined a world without police, military and even political authority even in the midst of a World War and while fleeing Kornilov’s forces in 1917, noted that “It is more pleasant and useful to go through the ‘experience of revolution’ than to write about it.”8 Such “pleasantness” as may be discovered had an educative function too:

Every revolution means a sharp turn in the lives of a vast number of people. Unless the time is ripe for such a turn, no real revolution can take place. And just as any turn in the life of an individual teaches him a great deal and brings rich experience and great emotional stress, so a revolution teaches an entire people very rich and valuable lessons in a short space of time.

During a revolution, millions and tens of millions of people learn in a week more than they do in a year of ordinary, somnolent life. For at the time of a sharp turn in the life of an entire people it becomes particularly clear what aims the various classes of the people are pursuing, what strength they possess, and what methods they use.9

Just as Mill saw democracy educating its citizens in the course of their exercise of their democratic rights, so too did Lenin see revolution educating the working class in their direct experience of it. In their essays and reviews, Aschoff, Callahan, Greene, and Suvin direct our attention to these more subjective dimensions of revolution. Reaffirming Lenin, Suvin notes simply, “without a radical theory there can be no radical movement,” or as Callahan’s review intones, “it will not be liberalism or social-democracy that will defeat resurgent fascism. It will require a more resolute radicalism, aiming toward a higher goal, than simply a nostalgic return to welfare state norms of the post-WWII period.” In turn, the essays by Aschoff and Greene move us forward in their diverse ways. Greene helps by reaching back to Blanqui to address one dimension of leadership, which, but for his class analytic framework, would seem dangerously Nietzschean, the will to power. In her concise and sobering thought-piece, Aschoff returns us to the need for situationally-transcendent ideas while forcing us to recognize that there are rival sets: her three “utopias” that compete for hegemony in the United States correspond to (1) the reactionary coalition upon which the Trump project proceeds, albeit unsteadily, (2) the fetishism of technological progress that has an elective affinity with the neo-liberal project, and (3) a putative democratic-socialist coalition that should encompass both the economic justice claims of the working class as a whole and the specific claims of its super-exploited sections, especially those of women and oppressed peoples.

It is perhaps in this clash of “utopias” – and their underlying constellations of genders, nations and classes –that we can see Williams’ dialectic of revolution as both simplifying and complicating reality.


1 Robin Blackburn “Fin de Siècle: Socialism after the Crash.” New Left Review. 185. January-February, 1991, 66

2 This is not to ignore the present significance of quasi-fascist, populist movements throughout the world; it is only to assume that these movements are projections of pre-existing tendencies that are unlikely to define a new era.

3 George Ciccariello-Maher Decolonizing Dialectics. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. 2017

4 Vishwas Satgar “Where to for South Africa’s Left?” Review of African Political Economy. January, 2016,

5 For a recent nuanced analysis of the Russian experience and the evolution of Lenin’s thinking about nationalities, see Matthieu Renault “Revolution Decentered: Two Studies on Lenin,” Viewpoint Magazine. February, 2018.

6 Socialist legitimacy rested on common ownership of productive property. The possessing, deploying and disposing of the means of production, the basis for class power, therefore rested on organizational and bureaucratic means.

7 See Amandla! November 2017. Chibber’s concern is to recover lessons for contemporary movements seeking power, and he is referring to the events leading to the seizure and holding of state power. For present purposes, it is worth extending his typology to the tasks of socialist construction given that even with a one-party state, political competition for state power existed not solely in terms of real and/or imagined plots, but also from imperial powers.

8 Vladimir Illich Lenin State and Revolution. 1918.

9 Vladimir Illich Lenin Lessons of the Revolution. 1917.