The Russian Revolution and the World. Notes on a Columbia panel.

A propos of a panel at Columbia with Wang Hui, Susan Buck-Morss, and Harry Harootunian about the Russian revolution, a few remarks on thinking about the anniversary.

In commemorating 1917, even if October 1917 is at the center of our preoccupations, we are commemorating many anniversaries.

An event about “The Russian Revolution and the world” that confines itself without comment, apology, explication or apparently even second thought to October 1917 is clearly inadequate. At the very least we need to recognize the complexity of the February revolution in its amalgam of Menshevik, SR, Liberal, conservative nationalist and early, local Bolshevik elements. We should recognize the revolutions of the major regions and nationalities of the Tsarist empire. We should recognize the Greens and the Kronstadt rebellion. All of these have a legitimate claim to be considered part of the “Russian revolution (of 1917)”. If the focus of attention is indeed to be placed on the Bolsheviks, as well it may be, it is only against this broader backdrop that that choice acquires its political and historical meaning. Insisting on the complexity of 1917 is not an academic, pedantic or liberal quibble. It is only against that broader backdrop that the questions of “success” and “failure” and of “legacies” can be intelligently posed. To proceed otherwise, is historically and politically illiterate. Or it is simply to fall in with the cruder varieties of Bolshevik and Stalinist fellow travelling and/or their conservative and liberal opposites.

This question, as to which revolution or whose revolution we are commemorating goes directly to Wang Hui’s very striking remark that if we are uncertain as to who or what might constitute a revolutionary subject in the 21st century, that uncertainty also prevailed in 1917. If taken seriously that leads directly to a pluralistic and open-ended account of events in Russia and the Soviet Union between 1905 and the early 1930s, which would be well worth our time discussing. It would. for instance, allow a serious consideration of the SRs that is not possible if the “Russian revolution of 1917” is reduced to October.

And as Wang Hui observed the meaning of “failure” and its implications for the present cannot be avoided if we are to comprehend both the 20th century and the 21st.

But ….

Much as we wish to paint a nuanced and complex picture of 1917 and its legacies, there is a political seriousness to the historical event that should rule out the kind of cherry picking and reduction that results from moves like the following: “I prefer to think about the revolution as a marvelously fertile cultural revolution and to talk about what a wonderful impact constructivist impulses had on Taisho Japan, where they helped to stimulate a “wonderful culture” (sic).”

Speaking of cultural influences, has anyone ever seriously argued that the May 4 1919 movement in China was significantly indebted to the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917? Not what came after, not the broad amalgam of revolutionary nationalism and communism that formed in the 1920s, but the May 4 movement?

Can we really casually declare that decolonization is unimaginable without the Bolshevik revolution? Might we actually want to consider where and when that was more or less true and what kind of influence the Soviet project exerted, also in shaping the violent reactions to national liberation movements? Compare India and Indonesia, for instance.

How do you espouse some sub-Benjaminian, broken, non-teleological, anti-progressive, approach to history, or even a critique of history as such (though I may have misheard) and at the same time blithely propose a list of “lessons we have learned from history” that should be applied to current moment of anti-Trump resistance … how do you do that, without descending into utter arbitrariness?

What is the appropriate response to Warren Buffet’s famous declaration that “’There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning”? Is the appropriate lesson that the left should take from history that its aim should be to put an end to the “macho” (sic) business of class war?

Do we really want to say that the position of the white working-class in the post-industrial North/West is today structurally analogous to that of reactionary peasantry at the time of Marx’s writing? Is such a statement merely an intellectual provocation or something else?

Is it worth discussing whether the Mexican revolution and the Mexican constitution of 1917 and its concessions to the Zapatistas have greater actuality than the Russian revolution(s) of 1917? How would one arbitrate such a claim? How should the global enthusiasm for the 1994 Zapatista uprising weigh in the balance? Should that choice – Mexico or Russia’s 1917? – ever be posed as an alternative?

Please don’t all reply at once, I’m just trying to digest the experience.

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