‘Fail Again, Fail Better’: Repeating October Revolution in 21st Century

Pavel Tomar
As capitalism develops further, it is swallowing the same ground upon which it operates. Leninism in twenty first century would mean the creation of new commons, and of a language which would enable us to see and create them. Only this would be what Badiou calls as the ‘fidelity to Event’: the fidelity to the October Revolution means a revolutionary preparedness for turning inevitable historical change into a positive one. Repetition does not involve a re-enacting of the good old times of twentieth century socialism, it precisely means its opposite: repetition as difference. As Lenin himself reminded. ‘fail again, fail better’“. 

The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 shattered the illusions of history’s mourners that it had ceased to exist. The fact that the revolution crossed Egyptian borders and spread not only across North African and West Asian ‘heart of darkness’ but also through what Che Guevara once called as ‘the belly of the beast’ – the various Occupy Wall Street movements in USA and other advanced countries – successfully proved that the days of revolutionary politics were far from over. Erupting in the aftermath of a truly global capitalist crisis, marked by the bankers’ crisis of 2008, the eventually failed revolution reinforced Walter Benjamin’s dictum that the task of every future revolution was to redeem the past failures of the preceding revolutions. Its redoubled failure the very next year reminded one of the unfortunate contrast it had drawn with the Russian Revolution of November 1917.
It is certainly not the case that the October Revolution was a straightforward matter, because it too had arisen out of numerous failures and total catastrophes. Very rarely in Lenin’s writings one finds no references to the Paris Commune of 1871 or to the failed revolution of 1905 (also the subject of Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin). The political self-liquidation of the Second International in 1914, when most Social Democratic parties called upon the workers to defend their own respective countries, finally buried the last radical leftist hopes of turning the World War into a civil war, as Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg had demanded. What conferred a special status upon the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution was that it had managed to succeed when it was least expected, in a backward capitalist zone, and this was partly made possible by a combination of unique factors, among which the intellectual understanding of its leaders stood decisive. True, the World War had brought upon misery and hunger upon the Russian people, and a disproportionately large number of deaths to the Russian soldiers whom Lenin had called as peasants in arms. True, Russia had an educated middle class which demanded political representation while a moribund monarchy ruled over them, and the vast Russian Empire stretched from the Arctic into the steppes and just above north of Kashmir and to Pacific in the East. The working class in the cities had an experience of decades in organising underground networks and of overground strikes (most of whom were organized by the local Bolshevik activists). Nonetheless, it required rigorous conceptualization and political strategisation on part of the communist leaders to give it a direction and make the revolution possible. In that sense, the Russian Revolution perhaps fulfilled Marx’s dream of a first conscious attempt at changing history, something he had called as a departure from prehistory. 
All those who baulk at the communist revolution of 1917, for its use of violence and targeting of capitalism and democracy (as if they go hand in hand together) never realize that the Bolshevik Revolution of November was the only way in which the democratic gains of the February Revolution could have been preserved. Otherwise, at the domestic and international level, a very real threat loomed large in the form of Black Hundreds and royalists who wanted restoration of the Czarist regime. Kerensky, the darling of counterfactual liberal histories, himself may have deserved some credit for the Bolshevik Revolution for he continued with the popularly hated war on the German front, called for Lenin’s arrest (Lenin had to go underground soon after he landed in Russia in 1917) and finally for instigating a very formidable rightwing counterrevolution with help from Army General Kornilov. If Lenin’s crazy-sounding April Theses were rejected by the Bolsheviks earlier that year, they were left with no choice later that year but to act upon them vigorously in order to save a democratic revolution which a revolutionary micropolitics (the “Soviets”) had set in motion. The Bolshevik Revolution, then, was the true succession to the anti-monarchy revolution of February. As Jameson writes apropos the mythos of violence surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution, in “the revolutionary situation, violence first comes from the Right, from reaction, and that violence from the Left is a reaction against this reaction.”
In another sense, the October Revolution was a dialectical thing: it both confirmed and negated Marxist theory. It was predicated upon and necessisated a whole new development and shift in Marxist theory, of which Lukàcs’s History and Class Consciousness remains a staggering outcome and a key representative, so much so that it transformed the historical succession of modes of production into a political question. The commensensical cause-effect relationship between actions and intentions was reversed. The only way to be ‘realist’ in 1917 was to open oneself to the ‘impossible’ communist revolution, which was seemingly denied by nothing else but (a vulgar version of) Marxist theory which called for the capitalist stage before a revolution for socialism could be signalled. Not only on the right, there were Marxists on the left who openly criticised the Bolshevik Revolution. Mostly, their arguments took two forms: one, the assertion of historical backwardness of the Russian situation, which called forth for development of capitalism prior to socialism (the stagist or the monist view of history). The second view, forwarded by the likes of Kautsky, was related to the ‘undemocratic’ nature of the revolution. Lenin especially targeted this latter view and deservedly mocked it for its referendum-style approach to revolution. The first argument deserves careful scrutiny, however, although to be rejected ultimately, because their place is occupied by the neoliberal right of today, who never tire of saying how Russia finally took the right path of opting for capitalism after 1989. (Un)surprisingly, it is this neoliberal coterie that puts forward a mechanical pseudo-Marxian argument of historical development. All it does it simply to subtract the desirability of the next ‘stage of development’, socialism, which was also the secret repressed aspect of left opportunism during Lenin’s time. Journalists, commentators, politicians and historians tirelessly point out how the moment of 1989 overshadows the moment of 1917, how the communist revolution swallowed a democratic revolution (read, development of capitalism) which could have borne fruition in Russia much before 1989. The undifferentiated seventy odd years of the Soviet Union’s existence count as a bloody diversion from liberal polity naturally waiting to join hands with Russia’s capitalist development. It is argued that the New Economic Policy in 1921 and the dissolution of Soviet Union in 1991 marked the ultimate resort to capitalism that the Bolsheviks tended to deny.
It was a young Antonio Gramsci who first articulated, in late 1917, that the Bolshevik Revolution was a revolution against Karl Marx’s Capital. “In Russia, Marx’s Capital was the book of the bourgeoisie, more than of the proletariat,” he wrote, because it could be asserted that what Russia needed was capitalism before it could have a taste of socialism.” The Menshevik Party’s main contention was that Russia needed a capitalist phase and a bourgeoisie, much like the Congress Party in India in the 1950s. Lenin’s first significant contribution to this debate was to show, through a brilliant socio-economic treatise titled The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899), that capitalism in Russia was developing ‘daily, hourly’ and socialist politics could avoid its development at its own peril. The first task was therefore to negate capitalism along with the Czarist feudal superstructure. Surprisingly, this work had resulted out of the debates between the Marxists and Narodniks in the late 1890s, in which the Narodniks took the view that the Russian village community (Mir) was based on a communal form of ownership of property and all that a socialist programme had to do was to cut off the capitalist head in the city and transform village community into a properly communist society, almost as a decree. Lenin rejected this view by showing the ready-made nature of capitalism in Russian society, putting an anti-capitalist revolution on the agenda.
However,  it was not so simple a matter in 1917 to reassert the outcome of those apparently empirical debates of the former decades: it would be tasteless to imagine Lenin, the writer of Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, simply forwarding a copy of his Development to those wanting to develop capitalism first. With Hegelian dialectics as his disposal (as Stathis Kouvelakis and Kevin B. Anderson show), Lenin argued that the fact of imperialist development had significantly altered the situation in which a simple transition from pre-capitalism to capitalism would not make sense at all, because otherwise it would force the hypocritical ‘civilizing mission’ of colonialism onto socialist hands. The fact that many Social Democratic parties in the advanced countries continued to emphasize ‘the historically progressive role of capitalism’ (as Marx had written in Communist Manifesto) only proved Lenin’s thesis correct in retrospection. It made more sense, therefore, for the communists to take up the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ revolution in their own hands and give it a form that would surpass its limitations under usual capitalist circumstances. Towards the end of his life, when it became clear that the Russian Revolution was not going to be supplemented from elsewhere, Lenin pinned his hopes on anti-colonial movements in Asia and Africa and argued for a different route for revolution in all these countries.
This, in fact, is the crucial break between Social Democracy and communism: the latter has always held the overthrow of colonialism in backward zones almost as a pre-condition of revolution in the advanced zones of capitalism. Later, in the twentieth century, communism virtually became identifiable with anti-colonialism. A few communist parties which did not take their national imperialisms seriously enough suffered huge setbacks, as in France. Lenin extended this insight into the working of Communist International wherein he, apropos M. N. Roy’s idea of promoting class-struggle within national-liberation movements in countries like India, stated that the very act of independence of countries like India would be of great importance to the international communist project. This was the whole difference between Roy and Lenin, that when the former pushed Lenin too much, Lenin only revised the draft on colonial question to the effect that the task of Marxists was to support the national-liberation project and to criticize its bourgeois leadership only when it abandoned its task: the best way to serve socialism in colonial spaces was to not make it a necessary condition for national liberation. Similarly, his position on the right to secession given to the former Czarist colonies within the new USSR was criticized by Stalin (and Rosa Luxemburg!) as ‘national liberalism’. For Lenin, right to self-determination was the only consistent policy with his theory in 1917, as outlined in April Theses and State and Revolution. What distinguished the October Revolution from others was that it was perhaps the only revolution in the ‘West’ so far which addressed the colonial question openly and directly.
In contradistinction to the usual liberal ‘anti-totalitarian’ stance (‘totalitarianism’ may be seen as the pseudo-concept par excellence) that all revolutions tend towards strengthening the state in its aftermath, it is useful to point out that the post-Leninist notion of ‘national socialism’ (as Karl Korsch poignantly called it in 1938) did not differ much from the social democratic position: both believed in the stagist view of history, despite their public apathy to each other. The post-Leninist Soviet ideology marked a return to the same misreading of Capital against which it had been a radical expression. The embalming of Lenin’s body was possible only in a society in which the leader had risen up from being a class leader to become a national leader, something that was contrary to Lenin’s ideas. From the standpoint of ‘Leninism’, Leninism was theoretically impossible. No wonder, then, that it is precisely when the Soviet State officially abandoned class-struggle (with the premise that classes had ceased to exist in Soviet Union) that it turned towards the greatest purges. All this points out towards a Thermidor phase of revolution in which most of its ideals were abandoned in the face of its saturation. While in Lenin’s times, terror was publicly acknowledged and deemed a necessary thing only temporarily, after his death terror itself was purged out of Soviet vocabulary while it was being made almost a permanent state of affairs. The problem with Stalinism was not simply that it was too ‘violent’ or ‘totalitarian’ and killed millions: its problem was that it had betrayed an authentic revolution while opportunistically playing around with the question of establishing a new emancipatory order. 
The question may be asked: with such a sublime status in the past, what should we make of the Russian Revolution in 21st century? In other words, what does the fact of the political greatness of Russian Revolution and the intellectual brilliance of its leader mean today? Is it enough to bask in the shine of historical glories, or one should ask for a ‘concrete analysis of the concrete situation’?
It should be clear that repeating Lenin in 21st century would have to be different from re-enacting Lenin. While the situation before the left is that of catastrophe, the task of a Leninist politics would be to traverse through this situation. Of course, global capitalism has acquired a different from that in Lenin’s own time. The crisis is not simply that of capitalism but also of its negation, as Badiou puts it. Its dazzling rapidity seems to erase all meaningful understanding, let alone a desire to change it, so much so that postmodern capitalism characterizes itself as ‘future shock’ (à la Alvin Toffler). However, one thing is confirmed: capitalism in our times has severed its relationship with democracy, evident by its leaders like Trumps, Putins, Mays and Modis. Those few communists still in power turn out to be the best managers of neoliberal capitalism, as in China, Vietnam or Uzbekistan, being blissfully bereft of the burden of democracy, contrary to their Western counterparts. As Lenin’s statues are toppled over in Russia and Africa, Mao is made to seek rescue on his country’s banknote, much like Gandhi, as if offered a deal he couldn’t refuse. Just like in the past when the socialist utopia constantly changed its geographic location (now in Cuba, then in Latin America), the capitalist utopia in the face of a never-ending economic crisis looks forward to its utopian ideal rescuers, always far away from where it is imagined: now India, now China, now Indonesia, now BRICS, or back again to G-8, the list conveniently shifting each day. Provincial leaders of various ‘national capitalisms’ are also neo-liberal internationalists, combining religion and economics in the same breath as hatred for the ‘intruders’. The future looks like the all encompassing white background as in The Matrix, when Morpheus explains to Neo what the matrix is. Where is there a room for revolution.
The political left is too busy to sanitize itself of what it calls as ‘class-essentialism’: Marx is acceptable, Lenin is not. Class is bad, identities are good. Or, if you like, class is also an identity, lest it should be too much emphasized. Since any attempt at finding an exit out of what Badiou calls as ‘capitalo-parliamentarism’ results in ‘totalitarianism’, we should rather focus upon giving capitalism a more human face (it is never asked what kind of an entity does require a human face in the first place). Therefore, this ideology says, the only lesson worth drawing at the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution is not to push things too far in search of a utopia. To put it in Leninist terms, the canaille of cynical wisdom acts as an ideological blackmail, preaching not to not take things too seriously. The moment one mentions the word communism, one is reminded of the Berlin Wall. 
Apropos such blackmail, we the radical Marxists should remind one of not only Sartre’s old maxim that the failures of Marxism can only be understood by Marxist theory – what else has been the best Marxist theoretical writing if not an account of failure in twentieth century – but also the fact that most of those who suffered at the hands of Soviet nomenklatura were Marxist dissidents. A Leninist gesture in our century would mean not a reclaiming of this past, but inventing a whole new politics that will enable us toward a dignified survival. Something like this was indicated by Lenin in his last writings, when he said that the task of the revolution was not to build socialism but to ensure normal life as such for its people. Perhaps then, the key to big historical change lies not in too much change but its arrest. As capitalism develops further, it is swallowing the same ground upon which it operates. Leninism in twenty first century would mean the creation of new commons, and of a language which would enable us to see and create them. Only this would be what Badiou calls as the ‘fidelity to Event’: the fidelity to the October Revolution means a revolutionary preparedness for turning inevitable historical change into a positive one. Repetition does not involve a re-enacting of the good old times of twentieth century socialism, it precisely means its opposite: repetition as difference. As Lenin himself reminded. ‘fail again, fail better’.

The Author is a Ph.D. scholar in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.