The Revolution Party

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin .... No. 1507 .... November 5, 2017
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The Revolution Party

Leo Panitch

A fresh and compelling new account of the Russian revolution to mark its centenary concludes by paying tribute to the Bolsheviks for acting as history’s switchmen, a term derived from the small booths that dotted the railway tracks across the Russian empire, where local revolutionaries had long gathered for clandestine meetings. Against those so-called ‘legal Marxists’ who in 1917 used the term as an epithet to scorn those who would try to divert the locomotive of history on its route from the feudal to the capitalist political station it was scheduled to arrive at before it could depart for its final socialist destination, China Miéville asks: ‘What could be more inimical to any trace of teleology than those who take... account of the sidings of history?’ What makes October 1917 not only ‘ultimately tragic’ but still ‘ultimately inspiring’ is that it showed it was possible to act decisively so as to engage ‘the switches onto hidden tracks through wilder history'.

There were, of course, no hidden tracks. If the metaphor were to continue to be deployed, it would require recognizing that the tracks which would form a branch line away from the siding of the October 1917 insurrection had yet to be forged and laid. The Bolsheviks who led the insurrection, above all Lenin and Trotsky, certainly weren’t intending to construct a parallel branch line. Rather they believed that those trains already far ahead of Russia’s on history’s track were scheduled to imminently reach capitalism’s final station (the "highest", as Lenin had designated it in his 1916 pamphlet on imperialism). And they expected that those trains would hasten to leave that station, once inspired by the determination of the Russian switchmen, who would then reengage the switches to merge onto history’s track to the socialist station. But, as was quickly signaled by the failure of the German communist revolution of 1919, the trains on the main track failed to leave the capitalist station. The result, as Miéville puts it, was that the ‘months and years to follow will see the revolution embattled, assailed, isolated, ossified, broken. We know where this is going: purges, gulags, starvation, mass murder’.

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