Today marks the centenary celebration of the Russian Revolution. No doubt it was a truly world-historic event. It did, in the words of John Reed, the American radical journalist, “Shook the World.” But it did so in conflicting, contradictory, and complex ways.
Thus any evaluation of the October Revolution has to capture the “bad and ugly” as well as the “good” that followed on the heels of this revolt from below. Nor can it be confined to the heady days, months, and years surrounding the seizure of power. It has to embrace with equal attention, if not zeal, socialism’s record over the full length of the 20th century, including the massive crimes of the Stalin period, the long arc of unfreedom that hung over the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, and the meltdown of Soviet power in 1991.
In other words, the severe limitations, broken promises, and the unexpected turns of the Russian Revolution and 20th century socialism should figure into any evaluation as well as its achievements. Neither cherry picking nor scrubbing out unpleasant sides of reality should inform our analysis.
Can you imagine a rendering of the American Revolution by someone on the left that paints this signal event in only bright hues and liberating images? How could any serious accounting elide its awful incompleteness and consequences — in the first place, the crippled opportunities that resulted and still remain for millions of African Americans, Native peoples, and other oppressed people who were forcibly and systematically denied equality, dignity, and full citizenship as well as the fruits of their labor and land rights?
Nor could any serious analysis fail to mention that these monumental failures of 1776 hamstrung in innumerable ways the overall progressive thrust of the country from then to now? It may not be a straight line, but the threads connecting “the sins of 76” to our present predicament aren’t so difficult to discern.
One final thought: When it comes to evaluating socialist revolutions, we would do well to recall the words of Karl Marx:
“… proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts …” (18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte)
Much time has passed and much water has flowed under the dam since these words were penned, but for me anyway — and more now than when I was younger — his words resonate strongly.