By Steven Male
On October 25th 1917 (November 7th), Lenin announced to the citizens of Russia “we have deposed the government of Kerensky”, and thus the world’s first self-proclaimed socialist government was established. This year, on the 100th anniversary of this momentous event Café Politique invited Professor Alastair Renfrew to Fisher House for a discussion.
But was the October Revolution all that momentous? Whilst Professor Renfrew did not deny the significance of the October Revolution, he did provide some important reflections on how the event has been mythologised, and on how western liberal historiography has treated Lenin.
For starters, the October Revolution was neither the beginning of a revolution nor the end. In fact, it is fair to say that a year of revolutions began with the February Revolution in 1917. In his talk, Renfrew explained how this led to the formation of a weak Provisional Government with a revolving door of ministers, which failed to alleviate famine, provide economic stability, and prevent continued military disaster. Both the July Days and the Kornilov Affair highlighted Russia’s ineffectual leadership and, according to Lenin, the inevitability of an armed uprising. Renfrew’s talk carried on to clarify the specificity of this historical time. Previously Lenin had theorized the importance of armed revolution because he believed the bourgeoisie would never willingly give up power, but by October 25th 1917 the Bolsheviks simply stated their willingness to govern by providing peace, work and bread. Kerensky’s Provisional Government offered no resistance. Opposition came from disparate parties in the ensuing civil war which ended in 1923. The next year, Lenin died, and Stalin emerged as his successor. Under Stalin, Lenin and the revolutions were mythologised. In 1928, Eisenstein’s famous film October presented the revolution as a violent struggle. Stalin, Renfrew noted, portrayed Lenin as a godlike figure in order to establish legitimacy.
Meanwhile, western liberal academics have equally mythologised Lenin in what has been a successful attempt to delegitimise his character and the revolution. For Professor Renfrew, Western historiography has presented Lenin as begetting Stalin since without Lenin there could be no Stalin, no terrors or five-year plans. Interestingly, Renfrew noticed, Lenin is considered both as an anarchist and a dictator, despite these being opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. Professor Renfrew then discussed the subjective and ideologically motivated historiography of the West. However, Renfrew’s attempt to dissociate Lenin with the Cheka (Soviet Secret Police) and the Red Terror that occurred under Lenin’s watch –involving wide spread repression and violent atrocities – needs to be reappraised.
Professor Renfrew’s most convincing arguments were centred on Lenin’s ability to create practical doctrine that related to specific circumstances. In fact, Lenin succeeded in creating a tightly controlled, disciplined vanguard party that could educate and lead the proletariat. This might be authoritarian in nature but the authoritarian context of Tsarist Russia made it impossible to be a social democrat. The idea of the vanguard party derived from the necessity of the political environment and Lenin’s, great mistake, according to Renfrew, was not abolishing this vanguard party after the revolution. For Renfrew, Lenin’s ideology did not beget Stalin; Lenin’s last writings emphasised that Stalin could not be trusted to lead. Rather Lenin placed too much authority in too few people and, for this reason, Stalin was able to depose of his rivals.
The necessity to adapt to changing circumstances is the key lesson of Lenin’s career and the October Revolution. Lenin’s objective, according to Renfrew, was an open dialectic political system. That this never emerged after the revolution was a result of the continued power of a vanguard party.
Professor Renfrew concluded his talk with his reflections on the need for a modern dialectic. The October Revolution was driven by a combination of Marxist doctrine and political necessity. Modern political discourse lacks all doctrine in Professor Renfrew’s view, and this is difficult to disagree with. There is a consensus that class is no longer an issue in British politics, which in Renfrew’s opinion is an abnegation of responsibility. Housing is currently the most significant crisis after Brexit; yet there is no doctrine on how such issues might be resolved. Finally, Renfrew remarks, there is a crisis in statehood. Marxist theory emphasises that the state is necessarily oppressive; the state is the force with which elites contain the working class. For Marx, the state must be destroyed. It is ironic, then, that the greatest threat to the state has been the emergence of advanced financial capital and technology. The fundamental challenge for political theorists and policy makers is to establish new open dialectics that enable the state to re-establish its authority and mitigate the negative effects of capitalism.