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Revolutionary Ecology | October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

October, a month by month chronicle of the Russian revolt from February 1917 to October 1917, starts off with this quote: “One need not be a prophet to foretell that the present order of things will have to disappear.”

I believe the present order of things is in fact disappearing. In its place is a militarized autocracy increasingly challenged by rapidly coalescing social movements. A revolutionary situation either way. Here are eight things this book made me think about:

Fear of Governing/Practice of Governing. Part of the Russian Left set up soviets or councils throughout Russia to practice governance, but agreed with other Left forces that  “dual governance” with the Provisional Government was required. Most of the Left was afraid of governing without some elements of the capitalist bourgeoisie.  Nevertheless, there was an extraordinary practice of governance. The number of forums, strikes, mobilizations and debates during this nine month period was impressive, even as the formal social order neared collapse in terms of basic items like food, water and clothing. Across the US, Peoples Movement Assemblies are practicing governance and honing the skills needed to mobilize real resources as it becomes increasingly clear that “democratic” government will not respond to social and climate chaos.

Dependence on the Bourgeoisie. The Russian Left’s governing alliance with the bourgeoisie arose also from their belief that the path of revolution required a bourgeois capitalist “stage” before there could be socialism. That position led to more war, social devastation and greater repression of social movements.

There is a similar “stage” here in the United States. That stage is the system-saving and oft repeated mantra:  “Take Over the Democratic Party.”  Imagining this institutional wing of US corporate capital  is going to  respond to the social, economic and environmental needs of an increasingly dispossessed US population is as dangerous as the Russian Left’s belief in a dual governing structure.

Necessity of principled debate, voice and reading of changing circumstances. Organizers tend to organize collective discussion around a central question or predetermined proposal. This practice may prevent debate that helps arrive at a clearer position within a changing landscape. In the Russian revolution there were serious debates about where power resided: in the peasant revolt and demand for land; in industrial labor unions wanting control and decision making; in the provisional government’s parliament; in the autonomous soviets; in the dual government; allied with the capitalist bourgeoisie.  We need deep debate and principled discussion of positions with enough flexibility to listen and come to a shared synthesis. Principled discussion means discussion based on an articulated analysis that combines historical knowledge and experience. Where does the power reside to contend with this militarized autocracy and to replace this collapsing capitalist order?

I was also reminded about voice and about oratory—how important they are as leadership tools and as a defense against demagoguery. At the Evergreen Labor Education Center, Helen Lee used to conduct “soap box” sessions where the women in its Summer Schools would stand up on the soap box and speak.  It was my conclusion after years of work at Evergreen’s Labor Education Center that if we accomplished anything it was facilitating a worker’s “voice,” the right and ability to speak.

Circumstances and the shape of revolutionary theorizing changed frequently during the nine months covered in October. Analyzing changing circumstances is as much a part of one’s belief system as one’s observations on the ground. We should probably get used to it. Both are important, especially in times of mortal danger to social survival, whether from climate chaos, institutional dissolution or nuclear war. 

Synthesis and the written word. This book’s tale reminded me how important the written word is (in mass journals) and the ability to craft a synthesis out of heated debate. Whether it is an after action report or meeting minutes, we need to practice synthesizing our discussion and moving it forward. In this book, synthesis was in the form of “resolutions” presented in decision-making bodies that moved the revolution forward, but these were only successful when they embodied a synthesis.

Women and the Crowd. The nine months in Russia were kicked off by a march of women demanding bread. It reminded me of George Rude’s work on the French crowd in history… how a demand for bread by women became a demand to overthrow the monarchy. Trump’s presidency was kicked off by the unprecedented march of women. It may take some time for this unprecedented march to become politicized; but there is little doubt it will.

Internationalist/Globalist Perspective and Isolation. The Russian Left maintained a very internationalist perspective; they were not convinced. a socialist revolution was possible in Russia. They saw the Russian revolution as the “detonator” for a European revolution among advanced capitalists  nations. However, that European revolution did not happen and Russia was invaded, isolated and its revolution terminated under Stalin.

Efforts to maintain organizational links with the rest of the world are very important as our militarized autocracy attempts to isolate us from linkages to global social movements. But I also think we can meet the organizing challenges here are home if we face them directly.

War. One of the objective conditions absent in the US today is anything equivalent to the terrible loss of Russian soldiers in World War I, estimated at 1.7 to 2.2 million deaths. A central dynamic of the Russian revolution was the revolt of armed soldiers at the front and at home. The soviets often had more soldiers participating than workers or peasants. Ultimately, the soviets had more soldiers than the regime.

Here, war is so profitable that militarists like Petraeus, McChrystal, Mattis, Flynn, and McMaster, who lead US soldiers from one defeat to another as they repeatedly invade Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, are seen as the “adults” in the room surrounding a supposedly unpredictable Trump.  With the Congressional Democrats giving these militarists a greater budget than even Trump requested, expanded war is in our future.

While I realize there is no anti-war movement even within the “left” segment of the Democratic Party, we need to face the institutional dynamics of this perpetual war if the  hope for a social revolution is to be realized.

Alliances. Near the end of the October, Mieville briefly interrogates the left socialists refusal to agree to a socialist alliance of left forces to form a socialist government. Organizers think about both the advantages and dangers of alliances, especially an alliance with a stronger organization. Still as social disorder increases, reaching out and making alliances with the variety of victims of that disorder will become our paramount organizational task.

Dan Leahy lives on Olympia’s Westside and likes to read books.


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