The Russian Revolution, and my attempts at living a relatively normal life


The last few weeks I have once again been spending time editing and translating material that I had written in the mid to late nineties and early noughts. As I was riding back from work this afternoon, I thought about some of the themes that had repeatedly popped up in the material. I also thought that I am still a little embarrassed about the fact that I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life in my twenties, and even my early thirties. I did not have a proper plan of action, I didn’t know what kind of success I was supposed to pursue, and my understanding of life wasn’t comprehensive enough to guide me through the decisions I needed to make.

As I continued on my way home, one thought made room for the next. I pondered my solemn intention from yesterday about taking a nap this afternoon after finishing my usual tasks on the computer, and then after the nap to start on the new book that I had bought recently for my Kindle (about the unsolved murder of a 20-year-old British woman in Peking in 1937). That reminded me of the long article that I’m still working through on my reading device, and I wondered for a moment if I would finish that article first before I start with the new book. It’s mostly theory, I thought to myself, and it’s both difficult to read and a bit boring.

The article – actually a lecture given years ago at a conference – deals with Leon Trotsky – revolutionary, writer and political theorist of the early twentieth century. I thought how Trotsky, Lenin and other Bolsheviks like Nikolai Bukharin were “next level” smart. In between planning and attending conferences and hiding from police and arguing the fine points of ideology they also found time to write articles long enough to fill an entire notebook on the theory of political revolution. And because there was significant competition in the field of political revolution theory in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first two or three decades of the twentieth century, you couldn’t get away with flimsy arguments. Once someone had published a new piece, it was carefully studied for historical errors, inconsistencies and poorly formulated arguments. Only the writings of party leaders and political activists who were intellectually gifted and who had some degree of writing talent were taken seriously when decisions on policies and plans of action were made.

Boom! it hit me: Those revolutionaries who had wanted to take over political control of the old Russian Empire, who had actually managed to do so by November 1917, and then were left holding the bag, so to speak, did not know what they were doing! Not only did their plans of action change as circumstances required, there were also serious disagreements amongst the leadership on which theory should be followed when deciding on political, economic, and social policy. The world view and understanding of how human life was supposed to be conducted that had applied for centuries were also unceremoniously cast aside. The new leaders in the Kremlin paid homage to a radically different idea according to which they believed people’s lives ought to be managed. To determine policy, make decisions, and formulate and implement plans of action they needed more than a radical idea, though – they needed theories that merged understanding of human nature and politics and economic principles and a few other things into a coherent whole.

An overview of political theory in the time before, during and after the 1917 revolution is enough to either make your head spin or lull you to sleep. The old Social Revolutionary Party, for example, believed in the socialisation of land – that farmland should be distributed among the peasants, while Lenin and the Social Democratic Labour Party (from whose ranks the Bolsheviks came) believed in the collectivization of farmland – that is, to put it under state control. The SDLP defined class membership in terms of ownership of means of production, while the Social Revolutionaries defined class membership according to the surplus value that could be extracted from labour. According to the first definition, small farmers who practised subsistence farming, did not make use of any wage labour and owned the land which they tilled, were members of the petite bourgeoisie. According to the second definition, they could be grouped together with others who supplied labour rather than with people who purchased labour, and could therefore be seen with industrial workers as part of the working class. (This difference might seem like a mere academic point to some people today, but especially in the 1920s and 1930s it was a matter of life and death.) The rift that developed in the Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903 was also largely due to a difference of opinion regarding principles and theory. One of the main points on which the two factions differed was the definition of party member. Lenin and his supporters (who later became the Bolsheviks) insisted that candidates had to be a member of one of the party’s organisations, while their opponents reckoned it was good enough if the person only worked under the guidance of a party organisation. Finally, there was the difference between Leon Trotsky and his supporters in the 1920s who believed that the revolution should at all costs be exported to other countries, and their arch rival in the party, Joseph Stalin, who was of the opinion that socialism had to be established in one country first. (Again, it may look like a debate between nerds today, but Stalin felt strong enough about the matter to send an assassin who smashed an ice pick into Trotsky’s skull to end the argument.) Trotsky also subscribed to the idea of Permanent Revolution, which according to Wikipedia, is “the theory that the bourgeois democratic tasks in countries with delayed bourgeois democratic development can only be accomplished through the establishment of a workers’ state, and that the creation of a workers’ state would inevitably involve inroads against capitalist property. Thus, the accomplishment of bourgeois democratic tasks passes over into proletarian tasks.” (So much for the idea that a revolution is simply a matter of which side is better armed.)

Back to my own modest struggles of my twenties and early thirties. I did not have a country that fell into my lap like a ripe peach, but I did have my own life that stretched out before me. Like the Bolsheviks who had to work out in the 1920s (and of course the decades after, but that’s another story) how they would go about forming a government, set policies, and manage infrastructure and services that would affect millions of lives, so I had to decide how I would go about sending my life in a particular direction, and maybe do a few things that I could later look back on with more pride than shame. And just like the Bolsheviks rejected the ways of thinking and doing things of what had been the established political, economic and social order in Russia up to 1917, so I realized that I had to work out why I had to do one thing and not another, why I couldn’t simply follow in the footsteps of other people, and why what worked well for many of my contemporaries wouldn’t necessarily work for me. I couldn’t just set off and start “ruling” my own life. I had to work out why things were the way they were. I had to work out plans of action that would be consistent with what I had worked out, and with the “policies” that I had decided on.

Anyone who has some knowledge of twentieth-century history would know the Bolsheviks’ experiment ultimately failed. Smart people can explain where the theory that had been developed by Marx, Trotsky, Lenin and others were wrong, and where it might have worked had it not been for the destructive policies and senseless violence perpetrated by bloodthirsty thugs like Joseph Stalin.

After spending all that time trying to figure out how I wanted to live my life and why in such a way, where I had come from in the broader sense than just looking at my father and mother, and how I fit into the mass of stimuli outside of my skin, I can say in all honesty that my life is working out quite well. I know what changes I can still make to make it better. And if I have to, I can explain everything to someone who asks the right questions. Which, if I think about it, is not too bad, considering that I am very far from “next level” smart.