Thom Workman on “The Long Shadow of the Russian Revolution”

Written by Sophie M. Lavoie on May 7, 2017

Thom Workman, right, speaking on the Russian Revolution on April 30, 2017 on Conserver House in Fredericton. Photo by Sophie M. Lavoie.

Why the Russian Revolution, marking its 100 year anniversary this year, matters for the political left was the subject of a talk given by Thom Workman on the eve of May Day in Fredericton. A political science professor at the University of New Brunswick, Workman focused his talk on the Russian Revolution and the American Presidential Election of Donald Trump.

Although he is not a specialist on the Russian Revolution, Workman started studying it because of student demand in the late 1990s, in collaboration with his colleague David Bedford. The original lesson was 20 hours and it spawned an annual series of talks on the topic.

Workman commented about his pleasure of giving this talk on Mayday, celebrated throughout the world, while Canada has created an artificial Labour Day in September. For Workman, this is a good day to reflect on and draw attention to things usually not talked about. The first problem is that “the eye is off capitalism” as the culprit for the modern horrors going on: capitalism is not blamed. Secondly, we can recognize that capitalism doesn’t work even though we constantly see people “dropping out” (as one of Workman’s former classes was titled) and wanting to live alternative lifestyles.

The origins of the Russian Revolution

The origin of the Russian Revolution is 1905, ending in 1917, an event that “rocked the capitalist world.” Russian society and the Tsarist regime “fell apart” during the First World War: commodities were scarce and soldiers were dying on the front (4.5-5 million casualties by conservative estimates). There was no distribution system and no central line of political authority.

People spontaneously formed councils in order to govern themselves. These councils were called “soviets.” There were upwards of 200 councils by January 1917, operating outside of the state apparatus and sometimes controlling entire cities. It was a type of democratic self-governance. The councils had political factions and the laws published were about all aspects of life.

There were workers’ councils, mainly in the cities and peasants councils were mostly rural, made up of peasants and small landowners. Military councils were also formed. This cleavage reflects the breakdown of Russian society. Most of the groups regarded the Tsarist regime with what Workman deems “unmitigated contempt.”

In the first months of 1917, the different existing governing factions united into a provisional government functioning at the same time as the soviets.

Lenin was allowed by Germany to return to Russia but had been doubtful about Revolution happening. He composed the “April thesis” on the way home and thought that there was no need for the bourgeois phase of the revolution (the one which cements freedoms). This consideration is grounded in the Marxist debate about the bourgeois and the socialist/proletarian revolution.

Lenin was a member of the Bolsheviks but the Mensheviks controlled the majority of the soviets and was considering cooperating with the provisional government. Lenin said “All power to the soviets” but the Bolsheviks don’t control the soviets. Spontaneously, over the next few months, the Bolsheviks started gaining control of the soviets and many intellectuals started joining the Bolsheviks, like Leon Trotsky.

Lenin also reputedly advocated for “Peace, Bread and Land,” implying an end to the war. This idea garnered much support because society had been devastated by war. The transfer of power, well documented in John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, was direct, much to the West’s alarm. Lenin’s first order was apparently for the soldiers to fraternize with the enemy, something that was not the norm. The iconic phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” meant that the workers’ interests would be on the front line of concerns.

The Russian Revolution takes another four years to consolidate because of the national wars being fought on the borders of the U.S.S.R. Canada was one of the countries that supported the counter-revolutionary armies. Lenin died in 1924, likely of exhaustion, and figures like Stalin rose to power and changed the trajectory of the revolution, which became very violent. For many, this is a derailing of the Revolution, that comes to be critiqued by the left quite soon after it happens.

The Western world was dismayed by this war and wanted to make sure it did not happen anywhere else. In Germany and Hungary, the spontaneous formation of councils was brutally repressed after the First World War.

As Workman showed, politics as a “clash of visions” was a common thing at the turn of the twentieth century, but from then on, the presence of the left is pushed out. A member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was lynched in 1917 in the U.S. Leftists were deported and arrested both in Canada and in the U.S. The leftist parties were destroyed at an organization level and those that remained were coopted.

There was also an “acerbic nationalism” in North America as well as “secular excesses” as strategies to eliminate leftist parties. There was a shift from class-based culture to mass-based culture, a focus on the technocracy and the “academicization” of politics rather than the “politicization of academics.” Once the system is in place, workers are told that the key to happiness is to consume.

The end of the Cold War

In 1991, we were confronted with something that was called “the breakdown of the USSR” as opposed to the “dismantling” of the system. Perestroika and Glasnost were the two policies that were put in place.

With the end of the Cold War, there was no longer a scapegoat for happenings and decisions in the West. The structure of Western democracies remains structured by capitalist parties that sit atop working class voters. Inevitably, working class grievances continue to emerge.

Contemporary happenings are just a result of this shift. Workman reminded the audience of the elections following Brian Mulroney’s implementation of the GST, when all the Conservatives except two lost their seats in Canada. More recently, parties try to channel working class grievances in order to keep the power.

In the U.S., right-wing populism has been ongoing throughout its history with four key notions. The first is movements with undertones of racism. The second theme is nativism, a perceived assault on the citizens of the U.S. by other nationalities or immigrants, which has existed for a very long time. Trump’s assault on Mexicans is just a “changed moniker.” There is also a rise in evangelicalism in the U.S., something done repeatedly in the past, in order to define party lines. The last notion is political corruption: freeloading bureaucrats wasting resources. Trump exploited this daily in his discourse.

The Democratic Party contained the left-wing populism of Bernie Sanders so that Hilary Clinton would become the candidate and not “rock the boat” economically. According to Workman, Trump won the candidacy because a wing of the Republican party was organized. Noam Chomsky calls this wing “the most hateful” party: homophobic, anti-evolutionary, anti-science and racist.

Workman’s conclusion was that without a “real” working class party, things won’t change.

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