The October Revolution was the promise of a “history proper”

The interview below was conducted by: Dimitris Givisis for the Greek “Epohi” newspaper. Originally published on October 29, 2017, ahead of the first centenary of the 1917 October Revolution.

  1. What do you think we can hold as a legacy today, a hundred years after the 1917 Revolution? How important is the idea of utopia and saving the memory of the revolution for our struggles for a different society?

First of all, many have called the events of 1917 an exclusively national, ‘Russian’ revolution. But the October Revolution was never only ‘Russian’ in scope or origin. What all the major media outlets of today – from the Guardian to the New York Times and the Japanese Times to the Deutsche Well and the BBC – omit on the centenary of the October Revolution are its international significance and universal horizon. Like the French Revolution, which introduced a new reckoning of time – literally, abolishing the old calendar and revolutionaries shooting at the dials of clock towers in 18th-century Paris, as Benjamin recalled – the “Russian” Revolution introduced the new, Gregorian calendar, but also the literal “beginning of history” for the exploited masses. Never before in history had the worker had the right to social welfare and a standard of living equal to that of a decent human being. It was, quite literally, the promise of a ‘right history’, as Marx had said, and an end to the history of exploitation.

But you do not get that from the media – it was the result of a protracted ‘civil war’, which was really a misnomer for a truncated ‘third’ world war that took place between WWI and WWII when 1/6 of the world’s population was at war with communism. It was never just Russian, nor was it fought only on the territories of the crumbling Romanov Imperium, but also included neighboring states, the Allies and Central Powers of the First World War, the British and French colonial powers, the United States, China, and Japan, and at one point even the Australians. Despite its size and scope, it was dubbed the “Russian Civil War” by Western historians. And it lasted 10 long years, well after the events of October 1917.

Thanks to this ideological oblivion, the most far-sighted political horizon of the October Revolution remains forgotten today – that this nascent state was to be like no other, that it truly aspired to be a genuine world state. For with the emerging Soviet state, the Communists of the whole world had for the first time something other than the International to look up to as an instrument of economic and political power. And unlike for Engels, for Lenin, the transition to communism proved in practice (because of the protracted war) to be longer than expected. It had to be accomplished within the existing framework, which stemmed from crisis-stricken Tsarist Russia, plagued by hunger, poverty, and war. But it was never a purely Russian affair. We must not forget this. Proletarian internationalism and communist universalism were still more than names before Stalin and later before the Sino-Soviet split.

  1. The events of the revolution had their dramaturgical logic – their rise, their climax, their waning, their disappearance and then their reactionary consequences. But although the concept of “event” plays an important role in theory and philosophy today (e.g., in Alain Badiou), the most important political and theoretical problem today is how we can transform events into sustainable states or “habits.” What is your opinion on this?

I oppose viewing revolutions as ‘events’. Badiou, of course, rightly points out that October 1917 opened the event horizon of the communist principle not only against the millennia-old repressive foundation of contemporary society but also in the ‘history of eternity’, as Meillassoux, his unwilling disciple, once described his ‘events’. In Badiou’s sense, revolution is the primary event: though historically in the past, its horizon remains open even today. But apart from Badiou’s notion, revolutions are never events. Not only in temporal terms (years) but also in qualitative terms: their outcome is never condemned to circumstance. There was no destiny to the October Revolution – it was not ‘fated’ to happen. But it was neither spontaneous: it was organized, by various factions. The Decembrists, the Union of October 1917, the Cadets, the Mensheviks, and the Bolsheviks, the Whites, and even by foreign Allied units (the RAF had even set up a ‘Slavo-British air corps’ to fight the Reds, while Churchill sent in death squads to support them); it was a struggle for organization. The ‘loyalty’ of the left to their cause was, as always, crucial. But that was not the case everywhere. Do not forget that the protracted war I mentioned at the beginning led to another alternative: fascist counter-revolution. And this ‘pre-emptive counter-revolution’, as the anarchist Luigi Fabbri described it, came about because the unorganized Italian proletariat and the socialist left did not impose their own rule during the crisis (and more than once chose not to), which would come to haunt them later.
Ultimately, both currents were answers to a fundamental question: the survival or end of capitalism. Their mutually exclusive solutions shaped the history of the twentieth century and the conditions for our own neoliberal present. In this sense, we live under the shadow of two revolutions – the failure of international communism and the success of equally international fascism that broke the back of the European proletariat. But while we have seen the consequences of the second revolution, there is untapped potential in the first. The ‘Soviet’ (council) is an unrealized thing. And it is no accident that in every revolution since the Paris Commune, workers’ councils have emerged: politico-economic units integrated into a system of co-ordinated producers. And it was their “revolutionary discipline” (a phrase you often hear from their participants) that once saved whole societies from the ravages of unleashed accumulation and its bitter collapse. This is the untapped potential that the October Revolution unleashed on a world scale before it was reduced to a meager ‘socialism in one country’, a mistake that should be a major warning sign to the progressive left of all countries, parties, and movements alike.

  1. Contrary to those who say that the state is the only center in the process of reformation/transformation and governance, many people believe that another place beyond it is necessary and that it is important to think about dual power through a new system of counterpowers as a stable political formula that will carry through the struggles. What is your opinion on this?

I absolutely agree. The Petrograd Soviet and the Provisional Government of the Revolution were symptoms of a deeper rift between the state and capital. While the former is always an institutional precondition for accumulation, the latter goes beyond that: capitalism cannot be managed forever. Today, the post-war balance of power is broken in every way: The stable workplace, the union, and the labor parties that put the liberal-democratic welfare state in its place are all but dead and will never return in the same form. On the other hand, neoliberalism, in an effort to overcome the post-war order, had already achieved a shift in governance between the state, private capital, and NGOs. It had also internationalized governance to include bodies such as the G7, G20, TTIP, TPP, the IMF, and the World Bank as actors seeking to directly stabilize capital accumulation across government sectors internationally. This situation is ‘a bit different’ from Tsarist Russia, so to speak. But come to think of it, both suck at governing. For neoliberals, it turns out that world market integration is not so easy after all. 2008 remains an elephant in the room. For the left, this means that simple state management will not suffice. Especially since the government is not alone in doing the governing and capital is already too mobile for its own sake.
But the only thing that was never completely mobile were the workers. They were mostly left confined to their nation-states because that is how their wage differentials can be exploited by the great drivers of globalization: offshoring and outsourcing of productive labor. This is exactly why immigration is such a problem for today’s Europe. Think about it: peripheries, slums, Bangladeshi workers, the Third World, while in the core countries all the social welfare and accumulation takes place… If anything, neoliberal globalization is by definition economic imperialism and cannot be fought (as was seen in Greece) with mere parliamentary struggles. What we need now more than ever are movement-supported parliaments led by left organizations that are able to pursue realistic politics based on workers’ co-decision from below – because, after all, we are facing a crisis of a global mode of production. And it will not end overnight.

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