(This is the second part in a 5-part series which examines the Russian Revolution and relies upon the new book A People’s History of the Russian Revolution.)
The idea that a small Bolshevik intelligentsia was entirely responsible for foisting and securing an unwanted revolution on the world’s largest country is…obviously fundamentally unsound thinking.
And yet, this is the intellectual basis of Western Mainstream Media coverage surrounding the 1917 Russian Revolution, and also the recent coverage of the nearly-bloodless October Revolution (better termed the “October Celebration”).
In the first article of this series I gave the primary reason for this faulty interpretation: the “great man” theory of history, which is the only theory capitalism can promote or understand. Bourgeois (US/West European) democracies and capitalist systems always foster individualism over collective harmony, and private interests over public good.
But there is a new type of history which is openly socialist in outlook and thus which necessarily puts the average person at the forefront. The jumping-off point for this series is the new book A People's History of the Russian Revolution, which dismantles the prevailing capitalist orthodoxy that Lenin and a tiny, armed intelligentsia unexpectedly and bloodily seized power in a coup.
The mainstream media cares nothing for this “People-first” form of historical analysis; indeed, they view the culminating October Celebration completely divorced from not just the 1917 February Revolution, but the wider scope of Russian history as well. After all, it is well-known that for capitalist media anything beyond year-on-year (growth) comparisons is considered no longer relevant.
In another sense, elevating the role of the intelligentsia is a case of the Mainstream Media overvaluing their own power: they think that via a relentless hammering on what they prefer to focus on they can “make the news”, i.e rewrite history - journalism is the “history of yesterday”, after all. This is a recipe for bad propaganda, and inaccurate journalism.
As for me, I always say: The news writes itself - but I decide what order to put it in.
Yet I absolutely do not believe that - being a journalist and thus part of the intelligensia - me and my band of keyboard-tapping peers have any chance at all to seize power via a coup and install ourselves as leaders, LOL! The idea of intellectuals truly leading the charge is as laughable in 2017 as it must have been in 1917! Who on earth in the US would storm the White House if Rachel Maddow or Rush Limbaugh was at the head?
Thankfully, a People-centered approach to history verifies that the intelligensia/media had no such power in 1917 Russia:
“The popular movements of the 18th-century had lacked leadership: but the radical intelligentsia of the 19th-century lacked a movement. The intelligentsia is not a class…. The intelligentsia is merely a social layer defined by occupation, education and a lifestyle. Mass mobilization of an entire social class - the peasantry or the proletariat (the industrial working class) - can transform society. The intelligentsia has no such power.”
If the Mainstream Media would realize that popular revolutions are just that - broadly popular, meaning not just popular among one social class - they would also realize that the Bolsheviks succeeded because they were content to simply be instruments of the common will; they were not the “will” itself.
Of course, denying that the Russian Revolution was broadly desired by the populace can never be admitted….
To be a capitalist is to be without history, living only in the present
The basis of the 1917 revolution is epitomised in the work of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, author of the inspirational work What Is To Be Done, from which Lenin cribbed the title for his famous book, in homage. In his diary, Chernyshevsky crystalised - again, not “created” - the mood of the 1860s “social revolutionaries” who were more mature than the “liberal romantics“ of the 1840s:
“I do not like those gentlemen who say ‘Liberty!’ ‘Liberty!’ and do not destroy a social order under which 9/10 of the people are slaves and proletarians.’
(One safely infers that Chernyshevsky would not have said “Je suis Charlie”….)
So why did Chernyshevsky and his peers fail - the ideas for October 1917 were clearly there?
Well, the ideas were there, and the intelligentsia was there - but the People were not. Lenin’s great articles, or my humble articles, can only succeed if the People are ready to democratically transform society via collective action. All noble ideas:
“…cannot be acted upon unless [they] connect with social forces powerful enough to overcome the resistance of vested interests.”
In 1860 these social forces - a united majority of the People - were not there.
They did not coalesce until 1917, when the People instructed Lenin - not vice versa - to adopt the society the People wanted. Lenin had been “instructing” for decades with few results! In the same vein, the fight against European capitalist austerity, for example, has not succeeded - despite years of my efforts (!) - because the People’s social forces have been divided and weakened for a myriad of reasons.
The point here - which the Mainstream Media can never say - is that the real groundwork of the 1917 Revolution had nothing to do with Lenin: it had everything to do with the debt-inducing, poverty-creating chaos that is inherent in capitalism.
Slavery, to debt slavery, and then to socialism. Or, then to…nowhere by 2017
Examine the emancipation of the serfs in 1861: just like the emancipation of the slaves in 1863 America, the emancipation was limited only to ending the most extreme human bondage; just like in America, the rights of Russian slaves were only upgraded enough to turn them into White Trash/sharecroppers - the social bondage enforced by capitalism was untouched.
“In consequence, the post-emancipation peasantry was crippled by both land shortage and debt repayment…. The effect was to deepen the poverty of the villages….it hastened the development of capitalist farming, widening the division in the villages between a minority of rich peasants (kulaks) and the rest…. Instead of the village commune being a shortcut to socialism, as the Narodniks (literally: “People-promoters”, or “populists”) envisaged, ‘the new economic organism which is emerging from the shell of serfdom in Russia is commercial agriculture and capitalism’.’”
Therefore, seeing that the inherent evils of modern capitalism were the true catalyst, the roots of the Russian Revolution are not so hard to understand. We don’t have to explain these societal trends by returning all the way back to the dawn of man’s dwelling in the North Caucuses region, but the Mainstream Media cannot be permitted to only turn the page to October 1917 and point at one man among more than 125 million - Lenin.
The last part of that quotation is from Lenin, but he was totally divorced from this 50+ year Russian historical process that fuelled the foundation for the October Celebration far more than any of Lenin’s writings. It would be far, far more accurate for the Mainstream Media to say “Lenin had nothing to do with 1917” than their mantra of “1917 was all because of Lenin”. This must be trumpeted loudly and clearly, and I would imagine that Lenin would gladly consign himself to historical oblivion if it meant we focused on the role of The People, debt and the endless, certain cycles of capitalism.
This analysis does not require extreme sophistication, but it is clearly of an ideology which is banned in the Western mainstream media. This is why they look for a bogeyman to explain anticapitalist events, just as they look for a great man to embody capitalist successes (instead of crediting those who did all the heavy lifting).
Also absent from mainstream media is the barest mention of the Russian Revolution of 1905 revolution and repression, known as the “great dress-rehearsal” for 1917. That crucial story on the building of the 1917 Revolution was the changing of a despotic monarchy into a bourgeois (West European) monarchy, which was wholeheartedly supported by a new agribusiness class and the nascent industrialists. These exact same bourgeois monarchies still exist all over Western Europe, and they are certainly still propped up by modern corporate agribusiness and greedy industrialists.
But progressing from autocratic tyranny to sharecropping/feudalism in 1905 was not enough for the Russian People, who insisted on more rights and equality than what bourgeois (West European) democracy can ever offer. Tsarist Russia was undoubtedly European - in its imperialism, methods, high-court culture, intellectual culture and much more - but 1917 is when Russia started to return to being/become more Asian than European.
And perhaps that is why there has been a century-long war against Russia, which the loss of Hillary Clinton reignited. Xenophobic war is a hallmark of modern West European history, whether it be against Muslims, aboriginals, or any Colored non-West European people. Xenophobia was used to turn nations against each other (and studying socialism) in 1914. The 1917 revolution - like the anti-xenophobic modern revolutions in China, Cuba & Iran - broke with this West European tradition.
Of course, nothing ever makes sense without any context. For self-centered, ambitious young, low-paid journalists in the Mainstream Media, the 1917 Revolution can only make sense within their current anti-Putin Russophobia which they personally understand. Their real goal is not to defend the average Russian foreigner, the average person worldwide, or a truthful retelling of history - the real goal of Mainstream journalists is to advance their own career and join the upper class. Become respectable men of property.
I have a lot in common with Lenin: namely - powerlessness
So who was responsible for the 1917 revolution?
Let's start with who it was not - people like me.
If you believe in the romantic idea that a solitary, intellectual journalist like me represents the strength, force and heroism of the class struggle…enjoy your debt servitude.
Indeed, it was the previously-mentioned romantics of the 1840s who mistakenly believed that individual acts could do more than the collective movement of the masses. A self-flattering idea, indeed, but it proved to be quite outdated within a generation. Perhaps it was a necessary developmental step, but one the non-individualistic parts of the world - like Russia - was happy to have moved past from. Western Europe is still fawning over itself in the mirror in a capitalist self-embrace, and have yet to embrace the People via socialism.
One the problems of the Mainstream Media is that most intellectuals simply aren't staunch socialists or revolutionaries - in terms of status I believe it’s considered an upper-class job compared to most (although in 2017 most don’t realise journalism now truly has twice the unemployment and twice the instability of most crafts (journalism not being a profession, of course)). This is why Lenin said, “I should be strongly in favor of having eight workers to every two intellectuals on our committees.”
This new book shows who the real Vanguard was: people who have been lost to history. Lenin may have written some of the important tracts, but it's the faceless people who - for decades - printed these tracts in basements, smuggled them in the linings of their coats, and organized and staffed the police-evading network needed to promote the idea of social change to the point that it actually succeeded.
“In this way, the exiled leadership reach deep into the Russian proletarian movement. But success depended upon a painstakingly constructed top-down network. On this foundation (of committed class-conscious workers in factories), through careful selection, was constructed an edifice of district, regional, and citywide committees…. There was no other way. The risks were too high. Any open organization would have been penetrated by informers.”
After starting in the factories, it spread to the countryside; World War I radicalised the soldiers to the idea that they are fighting for land which they won’t even own when they return, IF they return.
What we should increasingly understand is that 1917 actually occurred not thanks to the intellectual - even a non-solitary one like Lenin - but thanks to the decades of grassroots organizations which defied the state police who then found their ultimate catalyst in the soldier unwilling to fight for a Tsarist, and then also a Bourgeois (West European) state.
We must remember that common soldiers are - for all intents and purposes - an organised, “grassroots” group…especially once they rebel from state authority and transfer allegiance to the People, who were increasingly represented by worker and share-cropper councils.
That is precisely what happened in 1917 - the confluence of massive groups which discussed, agreed and then carried the People’s will and placed it - fully formed - into the hands of a Bolshevik Party which promised to implement Their will.
In revolutionary Iran, we can replace “mosques” for “factories” as one of the main avenues of spreading political enlightenment. Just like Russia, deadly cat-and-mouse games with the Iranian monarchy’s police continued for decades before being finally fulfilled in 1979. Of course, if you read the western mainstream media, it was all the work of one man exiled to Paris: Khomeini.
Again, its’ the “lone gunman theory” versus scientifically-verifiable reality; the individual versus the collective; history in isolation and magnified on one person, or history in a broad view and taking in as many perspectives as possible.
The role of the journalist is to not just give voice to the People, but to magnify their role
“Here, in the lower depths of the social order, the mole of history was at work….The effectiveness of this vanguard is incomprehensible if we imagine them to be the cult-like groupies of a remote guru - as the caricatures of Bolshevism would have it.”
So, we modern socialists must insist: It was not Lenin’s faith in the power of the 99% which produced victory - it was the faith of the many in the 99% itself. In the age of identity politics - how can such a faith be fostered?
Regardless of our modern problems, this is the unshared reality of 1917: that Lenin was not at all a catalyst but a conduit.
He reflected and fought for the People’s will, which he (among other Bolsheviks) understood a bit faster than most Russian politicians. This was his “genius”, and as 1917 progressed the People recognised that Lenin and the Bolsheviks understood Them, and that is why - as 1917 progressed - the Bolsheviks were democratically elevated from the 3rd-most popular political party to the most popular political party, and thus awarded power.
Indeed, in February 2017 the People democratically preferred the bourgeois Social Revolutionary Party and Cadet Party. But the People kept moving leftward, seeing that bourgeois (West European) democracy provided an inadequate amount of democracy and equality. Lenin (and his Bolshevik colleagues) merely kept listening and seconding what the People were demanding, and thus by October the People permitted them to take power.
Lenin’s ability to act as “conduit, not catalyst” - a socio-intellectual approach open to everybody - is the basis of the 4th article in this series, which is a necessary effort to bring Lenin, “the great man”, down from his pedestal in order to properly raise up the average person.
The next article in this series - The fascinating People’s account of how the Russian Revolution was won at street level - shows just how amazingly uninvolved Russia’s intelligentsia was in actually achieving the February Revolution in 1917. That article truly stands Mainstream Media history on its head!
Who was responsible for the Russian Revolution? It was absolutely NOT the intelligentsia - it was the People, the average person, the collective.
The problem is not that the People keep pulling us intelligentsia down from our perch - it is that many intelligentsia keep trying to climb back up: instead of remaining humble regarding their approach and influence, they assume a sense of superiority and thus cannot be Their conduit.
This is the second part in a 5-part series on the 1917 Russian Revolution which aims to put the role of the People first.
Here is the list of articles slated to be published, and I hope you will find them useful in your leftist struggle!
Who was not responsible of the Russian Revolution and who was?
The fascinating People’s account of how the Russian Revolution was won at street level
Why anti-socialists talk more about Lenin than even socialists
Iran’s 1979 Revolution picked up the People’s torch first lit in 1917 Russia
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Who was not responsible for the Russian Revolution, and who was?