Crude shadows of the Russian revolution still loom over modern politics, with all of the anger and none of the thought, argues Adrian McMenamin
This month’s 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik coup against the Russian republic marked the centenary of possibly the most disastrous event ever to occur to the global left, one that is reflected daily in the way that the Labour party talks about itself and politics.
The important thing about Russian Marxism, especially the Bolshevik variety, was that it evolved in a state without trade unions, a free press or anything remotely close to even equal male adult suffrage. Russia’s working class was tiny and had no organisation of its own of any real worth. Public political debate and open disagreement were unaffordable luxuries in the motherland and instead a vicious and inward-looking culture of denunciation and counter-denunciation inside a secret and centralised ‘combat’ party evolved.
And all of this made the Bolsheviks spectacularly bad Marxists: they were addicted to crude formulations and cruder methods. Today, Vladimir Lenin’s and Leon Trotsky’s works might be studied by historians seeking to understand their motivations or quoted by adepts as texts of revealed truth, but who looks to them for contemporary insight in the way that Antonio Gramsci or György Lukacs or Walter Benjamin might be considered?
Yet because they, of all the world’s socialist parties, were the first to seize power they got the opportunity to impose their politics and world view on millions who looked for a better future in a world where humanity’s huge productive capacity was harnessed for the common good.
Bolshevism killed or starved millions and in Europe was more or less overthrown the first chance anybody got after 1989, but the death of the substance is not the end of the form.
Think about this: every time you hear someone on the left dismiss an opponent – especially an internal opponent – on the basis of their ‘class’ background you are hearing the echo of the Bolsheviks and their crude reductionism (I cannot claim to be innocent of this either). So too if you think a Tory can just be dismissed as a ‘fascist’ or if you pepper your discussion of the Labour party’s internal debates and contests with talk of traitors and betrayal.
In policy also, the Bolsheviks linger on. ‘Socialism’ for so many is the abolition of private ownership of any business. Corbynista true believers don’t propose to nationalise the corner shop but profit is never a reward for risk and innovation, it is always – always – a return on exploitation.
In Lenin’s world view capitalism had already reached a dead end in 1917: he described the European empires as ‘the highest stage’ of capitalism. Then and now that attitude manifests itself in a refusal to contemplate reforms (why reform a system that is dying?) and in giving a free pass to any genocidal maniac who happens to be opposing the ‘imperialist’ (ie democratic) powers.
In 2017, Leninism is generally for cranks. Real Leninist parties were tiny before Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader and are even smaller now. His attraction to those who have no time for the complexities of Marxist theory but love the opportunity to express their rage in the company of others ensures they join Labour.
Instead of real Leninists we have been left with a zombified version. The thinking and theory has gone, but the style remains.
And it is that culture of vituperation, anger and political crudity that seeps like a poison through so much of the contemporary Labour party. The Corbynites too often echo the Leninist Manichean world view of their pure good versus the unspeakable evil of anyone who acknowledges light and shade in politics. Even having a friend in another party is now suspect.
Suggestions we all be nicer to one another are trite at best, dangerously out-of-touch at worst. But what we certainly should not do is play our own version of zombie war or contribute to the spread of a paleo-Marxism that identifies internal opponents as class enemies.
Adrian McMenamin is the former chief press and broadcasting officer for the Labour party. He tweets at @
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