Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Second All-Russian Congress by China Mieville

For those who cleave to it, a paradox of actually existing revolution is that in its potential for utter reconfiguration, it is, precisely, beyond words, a messianic interruption – one that emerges from the quotidian. Unsayable, yet the culmination of everyday exhortations. Beyond language and of it, beyond representation and not.

The All – Russian Congress, 27 October, 1917

Martov remained in the Assembly Hall with the mass meeting. He was still desperate for a compromise. Now he tabled a motion criticizing the Bolsheviks for pre-empting Congress’s will, suggesting – again – that negotiations begin for a broad, inclusive socialist government. This was close to his proposal two hours before – which, Lenin’s desire to break with the moderates notwithstanding, the Bolsheviks did not oppose.

But two hours was a long time.

As Martov sat, there was a commotion, and the Bolsheviks Duma faction pushed into the hall, to the delegates delight and surprise. They had come, they said, ‘to triumph or dies with the All-Russian Congress.’

When the cheering subsided, Trotsky himself rose to respond to Martov.

The rising of the masses of the people requires no justification. What has happened is an insurrection, and not a conspiracy. We hardened the revolutionary energy of the Petersburg workers and soldiers. We openly forged the will of the masses for an insurrection, and not a conspiracy. The masses of the people followed our banner, and our insurrection was victorious. Now we are told: renounce your victory, make concessions, compromise. With whom? I ask: with whom ought we to compromise ?With those wretched groups which have left us or who are making this proposal? But after all we’ve had a full view of them. No one in Russian is with them any longer. A compromise is supposed to be made, as between two equal sides, by millions of workers and peasants represented in this congress, who they are ready, not for the first time or the last, to barter away as the bourgeoisie sees fit. No, here no compromise is possible. To those who have left and to those who tell us to do this we must say: you are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out. Go where you ought to go: into the dustbin of history!

The room erupted. Amid the loud sustained applause, Martov stood up. “Then we’ll leave! He shouted.

As he turned, a delegate barred his way. The man stated at him with an expression of sorrow and accusation.

‘And we had thought’, he said, ‘that Martov at least would remain with us.’

“One day you will understand’, said Martov, his voice shaking, ‘the crime in which you are taking part.’

He walked out.

As if to underline the point. The departed moderates were, at that very moment, labeling the meeting only a ‘private gathering of Bolshevik  delegates.’ ‘The Central Executive Committee’, they announced, ‘considers the Second Congress as not having taken place.”

In the hall, the debate about conciliation dragged into the darkest hours. But by now the weight of opinion was with Lunacharsky, and with Trotsky.

 .   .   .   .   .   .   .  .  .

There have been a hundred years of crude, ahistorical, ignorant, bad-faith and opportunist attacks on October. Without echoing such sneers, we must nonetheless interrogate the revolution.

The old regime was vile and violent, while Russian liberalism was weak, and quick to make common cause with reaction. All the same, did October lead inexorably to Stalin? It is an old question, but one still very much alive. Is the gulag the telos of 1917?

That objective strains faced the new regime is clear. There are subjective factors, too, questions we must pose about decisions made.

The left Mensheviks, committed anti-war internationalists, have a case to answer, with their walk-out in October 1917. Coming straight after the congress voted for coalition, this decision shocked and upset even some of those who went along with it. “I was thunderstruck,’ said Sukhanov, of an action he never ceased to regret. ‘No one contested the legality of the congress .  .  .  [This action] meant a formal break with the masses and with the revolution.”

Nothing is given. But had the internationalists of the other groups remained within the Second Congress, Lenin and Trotsky’s intransigence and skepticism about the coalition might have been undercut, given how many other Bolsheviks, at all levels of the party, were advocates of cooperation. A less monolithic and embattled government just might have been the outcome.

This is not to deny the constraints and impact of isolation – nor to exonerate the Bolsheviks for their own mistakes, or worse.

In his short piece “Our Revolution”, written in 1923 in response to Sukhanov’s memoir, Lenin rather startlingly allows as ‘incontrovertible’ that Russia had not been ‘ready’ for revolution. He wonders pugnaciously, however, whether a people ‘influenced by the hopelessness of the situation’ could be blamed for ‘flinging itself into a struggle that would offer it at least some chance of securing conditions for the further development of civilization that were somewhat unusual.’

It is not absurd to argue that the ground-down of Russia had no real choice but to act, on the chance that in doing so they might alter the very parameters of the situation. That things might thereby improve.  

The party’s shift after Lenin’s death, from the plaintive, embattled sense that there had been little alternative but to strive in imperfect conditions, to the later bad hope of Socialism in One Country, is the baleful result of recasting necessity as a virtue.

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