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Last updated: 27 June 2022. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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The Russian Revolution: Is it time for revolutionaries to define the future rather than be defined by our past?

Part of our series commemorating the October Revolution of 1917 and exploring its relevance, this article by Jade Saab challenges a discourse based on orthodox Trotskyist, Leninist, or Stalinist rationalisations of past events,  insisting instead we should look to our present and future.


1917: the dream that never was

Historical milestones are strange things, they give us moments of pause and reflection allowing us to decipher events of the past, assess what, if anything, has changed, and lessons for our future.

When it comes to the struggle for greater democracy – which is ultimately what I view communism to be - not much has changed. Capital and the liberal states that have developed out of the capitalistic models still rule supreme. Neo-liberalism continues to be the go to economic model, nationalism still the wax that holds people together and intervention/imperialism has managed to unlock beasts long dormant in the Middle East now terrorizing the world all over. What other than the capitalistic model can we assign all these symptoms to?

In our current state of global flux the Russian revolution seems to be a beacon of hope for many, and in its centenary it is shining brighter than ever. And why shouldn’t it? The revolution delivered a nation from a ruthless imperialist war, removed a despotic regime, and empowered its citizens and presented progressive policy and freedoms still fought over in present day democracies.

But there is an ugly truth to the revolution that we revolutionaries are quick to dismiss in our romanticization of the world’s first communist revolution; a massive death toll brought forth by a brutal 5 year civil war with atrocities easily classified as war crimes by any standard today.

The events of the Russian civil war can easily be dismissed as a result of counter-revolutionary activity to be expected, and analysis into the atrocities committed could probably be explained or undercut as a climate of violence imposed by the Tsar already gripped Russia even before the revolution. Nevertheless, they remain atrocities that need to be recognized for the human suffering they have caused.

The theoretical underpinnings

The violence resulting from the Russian revolution is not the only blemish the revolution holds. Lenin’s theoretical underpinning also posed the state at the centre and the NEP built up the bureaucratic machine that enabled a usurpation of power.

Lenin’s State and Revolution is full of excerpts that today seem reactionary themselves. The differentiation between formal and actual equality, the reliance of phased communism, and the totalitarian obsession with engaging everyone in bureaucracy are all examples of how post-revolutionary transformation held the kernel of changing the socialist dream to nightmare.

These are not just problems brought forth by Lenin but continue with Marxist theory as a whole. In our review of a 100 years since the revolution is it not equally important to look at these elements with criticism and a healthy dose of scepticism? How else do we expect to not only learn for the future of our movement, but distance ourselves from the lapses in communistic thought?

Lessons learned

With this in mind I find myself at odds with my fellow revolutionaries. I don’t see the Russian revolution as something to hold up and I definitely don’t see it as the emancipatory light that will lead us in the future.

If we remove the romanitcization of the revolution, what are the real lessons we learn? Well, not much. A revolution needs a strong leader to carry it through, a revolution will have its opponents willing to viciously fight against it, power seized is easily usurped, and that revolution holds the power of transformative change. But is there any difference between these lessons and the lessons learned from any other revolutions ancient or recent?

Novelty, then, is the only thing the revolution of 1917 offers. Is that worth the applause it has received this month? I find not.

In addition to the political discussions being suppressed by our romanticism, there is also one of tactical importance to be had. Here the words of Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias ring in the ear:

“The enemy wants nothing more than to laugh at you. You can wear a T-shirt with the hammer and sickle. You can even carry a huge flag, and then go back home with your flag, all while the enemy laughs at you… That’s how the enemy wants us. He want us small, speaking a language no one understands, in a minority, hiding behind our traditional symbols. He is delighted with that, because he knows that as long as we are like that, we are not dangerous.”

Isn’t our glorification of the 1917 revolution just us holding to our symbols and flags that bit tighter for the enemy to laugh at?

In organizational development, an academic by the name of Edgar Schein developed a three level model for culture. The most superficial expression of culture, according to this model, is the artefacts displayed the rituals and icons. These are followed by the deeper levels of values, and core assumptions.

Marxism has so much more to offer than the base artefact of our history and struggles; our romanticization of 1917 however, keeps us operating on that superficial level, near idolatry. Isn’t it time we start focusing on our core assumptions and display those to the world letting them loose to do the talking on our behalf instead of leaning on iconic historic events that hold no parallel to today’s conditions?

A final take away

Today, we know more about the Russian revolution, and any other communist inspired revolution, than ever before. And as is customary to the left, we are using this knowledge to further drive sectarianism, to bicker about whether or not the revolution became a bureaucratic dictatorship or state capitalism!

We have chosen to be insular and paralyse the development of a left that can engage with politics as it is today. with our intellectualization of not just the revolution and its fall out, but of Marxism itself, we have lost the ability of practicing the same level of concrete analysis that allowed Lenin to seize power.

It’s time to move past our intellectualisation of Marxism and communism, if 1917 taught us anything it is that those who mobilize for the revolution will not do so for the ideal put forth by a political philosophy, nor will they do so for some sort of glory gone which is what most leftists see 1917 as, but for something much more immediate and necessary – bread and peace.

It’s time we stop daydreaming about a nightmare, and start looking for our own bread and peace.


Jade Saab is a Lebanese/Canadian writer and political theorist based in Toronto. His writings cover topics of Liberalism, governance, and Marxism with occasional forays into current affairs. He is currently writing his first book – Finding Left

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

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