Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 11, 2017

Did the Bolsheviks Advocate Socialist Revolution in 1917? A reply to Eric Blanc

Filed under: Lenin,Russian Revolution — louisproyect @ 5:19 pm

Eric Blanc

As most of my readers are probably aware, Lars Lih and Eric Blanc have been writing articles for the past couple of years taking the side of the “old Bolsheviks” against Trotsky on the question of whether Lenin abandoned previously held positions on the character of the Russian Revolution and especially on whether the April Theses were symbolic of such a break.

The latest installment can be read on the Historical Materialism blog. Titled “Did the Bolsheviks Advocate Socialist Revolution in 1917?”, Eric Blanc’s article makes an amalgam between Trotskyists, Sovietologists and—somewhat surprisingly—Stalinists over their supposed adherence to the “breach” version. Blanc cites a 1939 Soviet article making the case that “Lenin’s April Theses laid down for the Party a brilliant plan of struggle for the transition from the bourgeois-democratic to the Socialist revolution.” I am not sure how much relevance this has to the ongoing debate since Stalinist words come rather cheap. In fact, everything that the Kremlin had been doing as opposed to saying at least since 1927 indicates an adherence to the discredited “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”.

This was most obvious in the struggle between Leon Trotsky and the Stalinists over the dynamics of the Chinese revolution as I pointed out in a commentary on Lars Lih on May 15th of this year. Virtually the entire “old Bolshevik” cast of characters made the same arguments against Trotsky that they did in the 1924 “Lessons of October” debate except that in this instance it was the Kuomintang rather than Kerensky’s Provisional Government it was adapting to. After Chiang Kai-Shek had become an honorary member of the Comintern upon Stalin’s urging, he turned his guns on the Communist workers whose interests were considered of less importance than the “revolutionary bourgeoisie” in China. In a Pravda article titled “Questions of the Chinese Revolution”, Stalin describes two phases of the Chinese revolution. In the first, “the national army was approaching the Yangtse and scoring victory after victory, but a powerful movement of the workers and peasants had not yet unfolded—the national bourgeoisie (not the compradors) sided with the revolution. It was the revolution of a united all-national front.”

It is easy to become frustrated with Lih and Blanc’s special pleading for Kamenev et al since it is so narrowly focused on March and April of 1917. Since Lih makes no pretense of being a Marxist, his micro-focus is understandable. That is what the scholarly journals he writes for expect. Unfortunately, Eric Blanc seems to be following in his footsteps as a search on Google based on either of their names and Kuomintang produces zero results. I doubt that Lih will ever move out of his March-April 1917 comfort zone. Let’s all root for Blanc breaking out of his time-space tunnel as his career as a historian evolves.

Blanc writes, “We will see that while the Bolsheviks throughout the year hinged their politics on the imminence of international socialist revolution, their orientation within Russia itself remained significantly less socially ambitious.” In denying that Lenin was fighting for a socialist revolution as of April 1917, Blanc parts ways with those who have argued that the “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” was just an “algebraic” formulation that might have a “socialist” outcome. Chief among them were the American SWP and the Australian Trotskyists led by the Percy brothers. In an article that makes many of the same points as Eric Blanc’s but stops short of denying that Lenin’s goal was a socialist revolution, Jack Barnes told his cult members in 1983:

Trotsky viewed this algebraic character of Lenin’s formula to be its weak point. Lenin, however, was completely aware of the social contradictions bound up in the revolutionary process he sought to capture in his formula. He was completely aware that the proletariat and peasantry were classes “whose interests only partially coincide.” The key to proletarian strategy in Russia was to forge a worker-peasant alliance around those interests that did coincide that is, around the fight to bring down absolutism and landlordism – and to establish a dictatorship based on that alliance to carry out those democratic tasks while opening the door to the socialist revolution. The Bolshevik formula was exactly the kind .of algebraic approach needed to orient the proletariat toward leading an alliance of exploited classes through the transition from a victorious democratic revolution to the establishment and consolidation of a workers’ state.

Ironically, I agree with Blanc that Lenin disparaged the idea that socialist revolution was on the agenda as long as the cut-off point is 1916. But unlike Trotsky, I don’t think that there was that much of an “algebraic” quality to Lenin’s concept. Indeed, in the 1905 revolution that was considered a dress rehearsal for 1917, Lenin was absolutely clear that socialist revolution was not on the agenda: “It is absurd to confuse the tasks and prerequisites of a democratic revolution with those of a socialist revolution, which, we repeat, differ both in their nature and in the composition of the social forces taking part in them.” In a nutshell, Kamenev and company were writing articles in Pravda before Lenin’s arrival that were in the spirit of 1905 even though history had moved forward irrevocably. Indeed, immediately after Lenin published the April Theses, Pravda wrote: “As for the general scheme of Comrade Lenin, it seems to us unacceptable in that it starts from the assumption that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is ended, and counts upon an immediate transformation of this revolution into a socialist revolution.”

There is one sense in which I lean more in Blanc’s direction then you might expect from the criticisms leveled above. He makes a rather cogent argument that in 1917 Lenin saw the revolution in Russia as igniting revolutions in Europe that could culminate in the worldwide overthrow of the capitalist class. This view was consistent with the one put forward by Karl Marx in his letters to Zasulich. As opposed to Plekhanov, Marx believed that a revolution could be based on the rural communes but he did not specifically say that this meant a socialist revolution. If anything, the state might have looked something like Mexico had Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa triumphed.

Lenin obviously became convinced that socialism could be built in Russia but not in the manner dictated by Stalin. One of his last thoughts on the direction socialism might take in Russia was “On Cooperation”, a work that viewed peasant coops as the hub of future development. You might even say that this was a logical retreat to the conception found implicitly in Marx’s letters to Zasulich.

Since Blanc remains comfortably ensconced in 1917, he finds scant references to “socialist revolution” in Lenin’s writings. However, after 1917, his articles are replete with them, especially in “State and Revolution”, a key text of Lenin’s thinking on the conquest of power by the working class that Eric Blanc tried to reconcile with Karl Kautsky’s electoralism in “The roots of 1917: Kautsky, the state, and revolution in Imperial Russia”, an article written a year ago. It is consistent with Blanc and Lih’s attempt to rehabilitate Kamenev, since he tended toward Kautskyism in his Pravda articles in 1917, so much so that Lenin wrote a letter to J. S. Hanecki and Karl Radek on April 12, 1917, declaring that “We hope completely to straighten out the line of Pravda, which has wobbled towards ‘Kautskyism’”.

Unlike a lot of the contradictory and imprecise formulations of the Bolsheviks in 1917 in the months before October, out of which Blanc’s thesis seeks legitimacy, “State and Revolution” can be regarded as a systematic ex post facto defense of October 1917 as a model for socialist revolution in the 20th century. It rests not only on the experience of the Soviets but on the Paris Commune of 1871. Furthermore, it has a chapter that singles out Kautsky for betraying what Marx wrote about the Commune:

From 1852 to 1891, or for 40 years, Marx and Engels taught the proletariat that it must smash the state machine. Yet, in 1899, Kautsky, confronted with the complete betrayal of Marxism by the opportunists on this point, fraudulently substituted for the question whether it is necessary to smash this machine the question for the concrete forms in which it is to be smashed, and then sought refuge behind the “indisputable” (and barren) philistine truth that concrete forms cannot be known in advance!!

Lenin takes aim at Kautsky’s 1902 “The Social Revolution” as “a formula which makes a concession to the opportunists, inasmuch as it admits the possibility of seizing power without destroying the state machine.” However, Blanc regarded this article as being beyond reproach since it was “republished, and illegally distributed by the most radical of the Tsarist empire’s Marxist parties.” I can understand the logic of seeing Lenin’s party-building efforts as being modeled on Kautsky’s party in Germany but despite this, you need to recognize that there were structural problems in German social democracy that led to its eventual capitulation to German imperialism. Lenin might not have been clear on this in the early 1900s but by 1918, he describes Kautsky as a renegade.

Blanc calls attention to what perhaps has led to a lot of confusion on the left:

It has often been overlooked that in 1917 there was no clear Marxist definition of socialist revolution. Nor was there a general agreement on the exact political boundary between a democratic and socialist revolution, or for that matter between a capitalist and socialist society.

That, of course, is obvious just from the sharp differences over Cuba. Perhaps what leads to the confusion is a departure from the original concept found in Marx and Engels that socialism was a world system that would be born out of the triumphs of socialist revolutions in countries that had advanced capitalist systems.

Blanc’s latest article begins with a statement “A critical engagement with the past remains an indispensable instrument for critically confronting the present.” It is hard to argue with this but I only wonder when he will begin to critically confront the present.

You can search in vain for anything that he has written about Venezuela, Greece, Syria or any other country that has been poised on the edge of revolution, either socialist or democratic. What exact bearing does “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” have on the situation in Venezuela today, a rentier state that has been torn apart by the contradictions of declining oil prices?

There is much to be learned from Lenin but a lot of it has to be taken with a grain of salt. Lars Lih wrote an 880-page book on “What is to be Done”, a work that Lenin described as only bearing on the “concrete historical situation of a definite, and now long past, period in the development of our Party.” [Emphasis added]

If I look askance at the idea of holding the “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” in reverence, I also treat the theory of permanent revolution in the same way. What we need today is a vigorous and intelligent application of Marxism to the current world as I have tried to do with Syria over the past 6 years or with Indigenous societies for the past 25 years or so. If reading Lenin’s 1905 articles helps you carry out such a task, don’t let me stand in the way. The proof is in the pudding. But if Eric Blanc’s intention is to carve out a scholarly niche that will help his career in academia, that would be a sorry waste of a promising talent. I would just advise him that this is not what Lenin would be doing in 2017 if he were alive. Or Kamenev for that matter. What about Stalin? I am quite sure he would be writing for Alternet or The Nation.

4 Comments »

  1. I don’t know Eric Blanc, but you seem to be ascribing sectarian positions to him that don’t actually appear in this article. At the same time, you seem to be upset that he didn’t write a completely different article on a completely different topic. The title of the article is “Did the Bolsheviks advocate socialist revolution in 1917?”, so you can hardly fault Blanc for focusing on a “time-space tunnel” of Russia in 1917. The article describes how Bolshevik stances on state power and socialist revolution developed in response to events in 1917, so it makes no sense to cite “State and Revolution” (which, as you admit, is an ex post facto justification that reflects the outcome of that process) as a counter-argument. And your insistence that the article should really be about the KMT is bizarre, to say the least. What you call the “contradictory and imprecise formulations of the Bolsheviks in the months before October” are not something that Blanc uses to “legitimize” his “thesis”; they are the subject of the article. The purpose of the article is not to “rehabilitate Kamenev”; it is to describe the range of views that existed within the Bolshevik party, and how these views evolved throughout 1917. As such, it is a good antidote to sectarian accounts of 1917 that mainly focus on the supposed correctness of a given line, or how one figure or another (usually Lenin and/or Trotsky) knew everything in advance and was 100% right all along. What would Lenin do? I don’t know, but he probably wouldn’t be watching Wonder Woman on Netflix and then blogging about the experience. Just saying.

    Comment by Dave Palmer — October 22, 2017 @ 4:09 pm

  2. Palmer, thanks for the comment even though it is stupid.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 22, 2017 @ 8:45 pm

  3. My pleasure.

    Comment by Dave Palmer — October 22, 2017 @ 11:19 pm


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