Two Books I (Kinda) Read About The Russian Revolution


The centennial of the November 1917 Bolshevik revolution invites plenty of writing, some of it good but most of it awful. I don’t know if even the crucifixion of Jesus Christ has elicited as much Grade A Bolshe-vit as the rise of the Soviet Union.

In the past century, plenty of books have been written about the major actors and events, with Isaac Deutscher’s classic Prophet trilogy about Leon Trotsky standing out as a major high watermark. However, two that have been published this year were particularly interesting.

The first is Slavoj Žižek’s Lenin 2017: Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through. This book is a rather interesting one for several reasons. First, we have seen in the past 20 years or so Žižek put out titles here or there that obliquely hinted at Lenin and Leninism as a political project, a subtle, passive-aggressive Communism that in a rather ironic way mirrored the old American propaganda claims about Soviet subversion in popular academia.

In 2002, he collected some obscure writings from February to October 1917 by Lenin and offered, in a massive afterword, an extended analogy where he argued that he should be thought of as a sort of St. Paul, the disciple who turns Marx’s good news from a minority and persecuted opinion into a state power.

Then in a 2007 volume, co-edited with Sebastian Budgen and Stathis Kouvelakis and titled Lenin Reloaded, he said that it is precisely the act of divergence with the conventional wisdom of the mainstream Left that Lenin engaged with in 1914-17 that is necessary more than ever.

In 2011, he wrote an Introduction to Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism that not only rebukes the claim that Comrade Bronstein would have been better on civil rights had he taken power rather than Stalin, he outright argues that the use of political terror, up to and including brutal violence and execution, was a prerequisite for the Soviet project.

Now we have a front-and-center, no holds barred exposition of  Žižek’s full view regarding the past and also the future, which he says must be informed by Lenin’s writings. This is an interesting point. Rather than pulling out texts known and loved by even anti-Bolshevik Leftists, such as the near-anarchist State and Revolution, we get an anthology of writings from Lenin’s last two years.

Lenin had survived two attempted assassinations, one of which left bullets lodged in his body. He suffered paralyzing strokes and desperately tried to intervene in key developments that would determine the rest of Soviet history.

In short but powerful articles like On Cooperation and Better Fewer But Better Lenin wrote that the Soviet project was not going to go as hoped. Rather than try to build socialism, Communists would instead build on state capitalism. Whereas in 1917 he wrote in a near-apocalyptic, messianic tone that made his contemporaries wonder if he had gone a bit crazy, here we have a Lenin who wrote something similar to Samuel Beckett, who said, “Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

These are the writings of a dying man who believed that the Communist Party must create a multi-generational revolution in property relations and culture. (I hesitate to use the traditional phrasing “cultural revolution” because of how Mao forever has defined that phrase.)

Žižek sees this as the major lesson that must be learned from Lenin. Relying on previous historical scholarship by Moshe Lewin and Lars T. Lih, he shows that the truth of Lenin, his internationalism and belief in the right of self-determination of nations, was the key element that Stalin denied and instead replaced with a Great Russian nationalist fervor that finds itself today expressed by Putin’s leadership. And I say I kinda read this because, while I really enjoyed the new essays, I actually skipped the stuff written by Lenin that I read a while ago anyways.

Next is the reissue of C.L.R. James’s classic history World Revolution, 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International, edited with a new introductory essay by Christian Høgsbjerg. James, the Afro-Trinidadian historian, sports reporter and polemicist, is seen by many as one of the greatest minds of the Western Left in the last century. Originally a member of the Trotskyist movement, he and his comrades would eventually break off with it by the early 1950s and formulate a new vision of Marxism, alternatively called the Johnston-Forest Tendency or autonomist Marxism, that seemed at times like a fusion of traditional Communist philosophy with anarcho-syndicalist ethos.

Yet in 1937, long before these developments, James was a young, brash, brilliant sports reporter in Great Britain who became a convert to the Trotskyist cause. Here is a James who is making the quite obvious and pretty audacious claims of a young writer lacking a grasp of political nuances.

As a freshly-minted convert to the faith, James’s zeal shines through in a manner that seems almost embarrassing at times. Høgsbjerg’s essay is a wonderful biographical sketch that show James and his comrades as a cadre of smart, funny Trotskyists trolling the living hell out of their Stalinist contemporaries at every chance they get.

The book is a fascinating relic of a time that is now forgotten and deals with an equally obscure subject, the Comintern. Based entirely on scholarship and research without the advantage granted by either being Stalin-friendly or having access to the Soviet archives which took place after the 1991 collapse, James creates here an important explanation of an organization that sought to build international solidarity and revolution on a worldwide basis that would actively fight white supremacy, imperialism, and sexism.

While some moments can be a bit overly didactic, this is an important read that I am only up to chapter three in. But the Introduction was really good!

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