Tragedy and Revolution

This article on the Russian Revolution by Lars T. Lih makes for interesting reading. He argues that leftist and liberal critics of the Soviet Union alike have over-emphasized doctrinal or ideological disputes, which were in fact meant to provide post-hoc rationalizations for decisions that had been made on other grounds. The key decision was whether some kind of accomodation must be made with the “bourgeois” educated class or whether the working class and its party would need to “go it alone.” Mensheviks favored the former, while the Bolsheviks obviously preferred the latter.

What’s striking to me about Lih’s argument is that he claims that both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks were empirically right about the situation on the ground — that really was the key decision. They were having the right argument. “Furthermore,” he says, “we cannot say that one side was wrong and the other right. Each side combined insight and wishful thinking…. In either case, we start, not with doctrinal insight or error, but with a strongly felt and essentially correct empirical view of Russian society in 1917.” As he summarizes the two positions:

Menshevik: Some sort of [conciliation] with educated society is necessary, and therefore a suitable “bourgeois” partner for this [conciliation] can be found (and besides, Russian faces a “bourgeois revolution” and therefore we must tolerate the “bourgeois” Provisional Government).

Bolshevik: [Conciliation] with educated society is impossible, and therefore the Russian proletariat is ready to take on the responsibilities of the revolutionary (and besides, Russia is ready to take “steps towards socialism”).

Having summarized the “insight,” he then turns to the “wishful thinking”:

For both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, a correct empirical view leads to a factual assertion that is based more on wishful thinking than on the realities. The Mensheviks have to insist that a suitable partner can be found in bourgeois society for carrying out the revolution’s goals (or, at least, that educated society can be bullied into cooperation by “pressure from below”). The situation is too horrible to contemplate if this is not the case.

The Bolsheviks have to insist that vast complicated policies of social transformation and crisis management can be carried out almost painlessly if only the proletariat asserts its class power. The situation is too horrible to contemplate if this is not the case.

The punchline, of course, turns out to be: “The situation was in fact horrible — too horrible to look straight in the face, too horrible to contemplate.” To be successful, the Russian Revolution did need the cooperation of the educated classes, but it just wasn’t going to happen. And in the end, the Bolsheviks won not because of greater ideological correctness, but because they had chosen the (mis)reading of the situation that favored autonomous action rather than waiting for a sympathetic faction of the educated classes to materialize. They may have made a mistake, but they were facing an unfixable problem — “the Russian Revolution is not a matter of making or avoiding mistakes, but a tragedy without an acceptable solution (that’s what tragedy is).”

To jump from the world-historical to the trivially pop-cultural, I was reminded of a principle from House that has always stuck with me: if there are two possible diagnoses, one with a treatment and one without, go with the one that has a treatment. In that case, though, the goal wasn’t necessarily a cure as such, but information that can lead to a sure diagnosis. If the treatment works, you know you guessed right; if it doesn’t, it may well kill the patient, but at least you’ll know for sure what the diagnosis is.

In politics, presumably knowledge as such is not the goal. It seems obscene to view the Soviet Union as a kind of live experiment where we can once and for all settle the debate over whether Russia could serve as the base for a worldwide socialist revolution under conditions of imperialism, whether you could “skip ahead” to socialism without going through a bourgeois revolution, whether socialism in one country was possible, etc. And whatever it is that the left collectively has learned seems to have produced decades of stagnation and paralysis — the nausea that inhibits action.

Once you’ve stared into the abyss of tragedy, into the reality of an unfixable problem, it seems that the only choice is to abandon the world — in favor of sectarian doctrinal debates that ignore empirical questions or an Adorno-esque aesthetic contemplation — and perhaps to wait for a new generation, naive and hopeful, that does not find it insulting or humiliating that they be asked to set the world right.

5 Responses to “Tragedy and Revolution”

  1. SLHinchey Says:

    Could you please re-phrase the last paragraph? Is the alternate choice missing?

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Sorry, poor editing — it’s updated.

  3. Jared Rodriguez Says:

    This is what Trotsky characterized as the essence of tragedy, great ends and insignificant means. :(

  4. protoplasm Says:

    Even if knowledge as such isn’t the goal of politics, presumably it can be (and was) the result. Not to stick up for the left, but perhaps more has been learned than that which only generates paralytic nausea. (Though were that the whole story, it wouldn’t necessarily be grounds for despair: even helplessness can be unlearned.)

    Two things come to mind:
    (1) the importance of what you, in a comment on your “What if…” post, dubbed “political strategery” and what I think of as political faith. (Or what could, depending on one’s terminological proclivities and whether one prefers to praise new gods or kill old ones, be called political heresy. That is, heresy against the neoliberal capitalist TINA rationalization of political action as a subset of consumer choice.) Leftists must do what is most left in every context: sing of the revolution, write about liberation and intersectionality, agitate to expand our political horizon, organize for leftist electoral insurgency, caucus for the most left candidate, and, if it comes to it, vote for the Democratic nominee. (Without argument I assume that “heighten the contradictions” just doesn’t work.)

    (2) a bit pat, sure, but per your fourth paragraph: hopefully a not insignificant subset of our educated classes have learned that if they don’t want to meet their fate up against a wall or in a gulag, they’d do well to cooperate with future proletarian revolutions. :)

    Anyway, fine post. Did you see or do you have any comment on Timothy Burke’s response to your “What if…” post? It’s here: http://blogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/blog/2016/02/23/opt-out/

  5. chris y Says:

    The Bolsheviks understood from the outset that the revolution couldn’t survive if it was isolated in Russia, which is why they attached so much importance to supporting the revolutionary movement in Germany. When it became clear that the German revolution wasn’t going to succeed in the short term, roughly 1924, they recognised that they had a probably insoluble problem. It was at this point that Stalin and the Leningrad leadership started to toy with the idea of building “socialism in a single country”, an idea that Lenin had firmly ridiculed. The rest is history. Something called the Bolshevik/Communist party did remain formally in power for fifty years, but at the cost of eliminating most of its pre-revolutionary membership, as well as a large part of the population at large; it doesn’t need saying this is not what they had in mind in 1917.


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