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writing for godot

The Bolshevik Centennial, Lessons for Today

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Written by Al Markowitz   
Tuesday, 31 October 2017 01:29

In our country poverty is less visible than in many places around the world due, in large part, to easy credit and cheaply mass-produced goods. The reality is that most of us are living barely above serfdom. Half of working Americans are at the official poverty level. We live in fear of bosses, landlords, banks and the debt that we accrue to get by on insufficient wages.

Some of us are actual slaves in an expanding prison-labor system used by industry to save money by omitting the cost of labor. Federal Prison Industries under the brand UNICORE operates approximately fifty two prison factories across the United States. Prisoners manufacture or assemble products for the US military and federal agencies. They produce furniture, eyeglass frames, clothing and circuit boards in addition to providing computer-aided design services and call center support for private companies. Increasingly, prison labor is being used by private industries. A recent exposé on the Reveal news site told the story of people remanded by courts to a chicken processing plant passing itself off as an addiction recovery program. “Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery” or CAAIR is a major supplier of chicken to Kentucky Fried Chicken, Popeyes, supermarket chains and institutions. They rely on unpaid, slave labor. Required religious services aside, they offer no drug counseling or recovery services.

The poor countries that productive jobs are exported to are not much better. Sweatshops and slave labor are enforced and countries are aggressively occupied to supply corporations with cheap resources and labor. The money made buys our politicians, who in turn serve those corporate interests.

We are living in a corrupt corporate oligarchy which perpetuates poverty and which is destroying the ecosystem on which all life depends. The modern nation-state exists to maintain the power and wealth of a few at the expense of the rest of us. The market system is an out of control juggernaut driven by competitive greed. Most of us feel trapped within it – trapped by bills, living expenses and the lack of practical alternatives. The present is a product of the progression of the past which includes efforts at human liberation and emancipation from oppressive tyrannies.

How we perceive the progression of history shapes our views and perceptions of the present. Rather than focusing on leaders and wars, it would be better to focus on the evolution and flow of people's movements toward freedom and equality. It is also vital to understand the historical and cultural contexts in which events occur in order to understand history, much less the present. Nothing happens in a vacuum, nor can anything be understood out of context.

This month marks the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution. Whatever you think of that event, colored by time, history and a century of defamation, it was an important, world shaking moment in history. It is not my intent to write about or defend the entire experience of the USSR but to look at the precedents, causes, ideas, and historical, continuing significance of the revolution itself.

To understand this event, it is important to know the context of the time and the ideas which influenced it. 1917 was the height of the First World War, a horrific and bloody period unlike any before. Russia was a poor, backward country pulled into the fray. In the late 19th and early 20th century, industrial concentration had developed in St. Petersburg, Moscow and the Donbass region of Ukraine. Most of Russia remained rural and barely out of serfdom. The rule of the Tzars was an oppressive and murderous autocracy with a heavy bureaucracy. It was a miserable country imprisoned by poverty and fear, as anyone reading Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky or Gogol would understand.

In Russia, there had been many peasant and later socialist rebellions. By 1897 the short-lived Union of Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class was formed. It was soon broken up with its members, including V.I. Lenin, arrested and sent to Siberia. Lenin continued to write and be read, even from exile, by many in Russia. The first massive popular revolution occurred in 1905 but led only to narrow reforms. By February1917, rising anger and the economic effects of the continuing war led to another revolution. This time the Tzarist autocracy was overthrown and replaced by a provisional government composed of leaders much like todays' centrist democrats and euro-socialists. The war continued and little changed. Lenin and the Bolsheviks envisioned a system of worker-citizen councils based on the experience of the Paris Commune. Worker committees, known as “soviets” were formed, as they had been in Paris.

Retracing the movement of working people attempting to overcome the corporate state, we have to start with Paris. In 1871, following the defeat of France by the Prussians, Parisians found themselves without a government. Paris had long been a hotbed of intellectuals and radicals as well as having a strong organized worker's movement. Parisians decided that they could rule themselves democratically without the oppressive rule of royalty and moneyed elites. They formed citizen committees and began to govern the city. At that point, the French government under Napoleon III sitting in Versailles allied with the Prussians who had recently defeated them and laid siege to Paris. After weeks of defensive fighting by the Parisian Communards, this first attempt at direct cooperative democracy was crushed. What united former enemies was the notion that they were not necessary. That people could govern ourselves without them. This has remained true of the corporate ruling class. We have seen continuing anti-socialist demonization and the crushing of populist regimes ever since. Much has been written on the Paris Commune as the first serious modern revolution. In particular, Marx's The Civil War in France and the later commentary by Lenin, The State and Revolution are key to understanding the ideas and intent of the Bolshevik Revolution of October/November 1917. Other books on this worth reading include 10 Days that Shook the World by American journalist John Reed and The History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky. Unlike present writers, they were there.

As with the assault and bloody defeat of the Paris Commune, no sooner did the popular Bolsheviks, under Lenin's leadership, topple the provisional government than there was a new-found unity of capitalist countries in attempting to crush the new regime. The very idea of a state not run by and for the rich was seen as an existential threat. In 1918 Britain, France, Japan and the US invaded the newly formed USSR partly because the Bolshevik regime had pulled out of WWI, but primarily, to crush the worker rebellion and re-establish a government to their liking. They also armed and funded counter-revolutionary and pro-Tzarist forces leading to a long, bloody civil war. Unlike the Paris Commune experience, the Russian Revolution prevailed.

The devolution of the Russian Revolution over time is worthy of criticism but it cannot be separated from Russian culture and the reality of being under constant siege which, even after the failure of the “Expeditionary Force” invasion, never ceased. The rise of fascism was a ruling-class response to the threat of socialism. Even today, it is a response to growing demands for social justice. What should be remembered and celebrated like Bastille Day, the French Revolution, and the Paris Commune, is the defeat of a brutal dictatorship and the popular victory of working people over the tyranny of money.

This is especially important today in a world increasingly run by and for the rule of money, plagued by continual war, refugee migration, growing poverty and climate destruction. Today eight men own the same wealth as the bottom 3.6 billion people amid desperate hunger and poverty. Capital has become a global power and the state its tool. Certainly, it is not 1917. The idea of armed rebellion and revolution is no longer practical given the brute power and global organization of multi-nationals for their own interests. That is what capitalism or “the market economy” really is. The rule of, by, and for marketeers; a system of self-serving corruption in practice.

Key in liberating ourselves from any tyranny and building a better world is our recognition that we are enslaved to a system that is not in our interest. As German poet and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.

In the ensuing struggles for human dignity and freedom since 1917 new ways have been found to organize and empower common people. The principled non-violence enunciated and practiced by Mohandas Gandhi and later by our own civil rights movement is a powerful tool that turns violence on itself and builds the massive public support needed for successful change in the process.

A friend recently made an offhand comment about “communism not working” while defending corporate centrism and condemning crowd-funded alternatives – and this is someone I met at our local Occupy encampment. I have often wondered why they were there, but more to the point, it depends on what one means by “communism.” If we mean dictatorship, they are right. But, if we mean the collective, democratic ownership of our workplaces and communities, it seems to be working well in the Mondragon cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain.

The Mondragon cooperatives, widely considered the most successful worker-owned cooperative enterprise in the world, started in the 1950s as a Catholic Action project. The Mondragon group includes 257 financial, industrial, retail, and research and development concerns, employing approximately 74,000 people. The worker owned and run co-ops manufacture everything from commercial kitchen equipment to industrial robots. Each worker has one vote in its general assembly. Each co-op is represented at the Cooperative Congress, where system-wide plans and business decisions are made. Cooperative members elect their managers and can replace them. The managers elect the town councils resulting in cooperative popular democracy. In hard economic times, people have voted to lower their wages and to move workers to other cooperative businesses. No one is layed off.

It is notable that this was started successfully under the oppressive fascist Franco regime. Sometimes, it is better to, as in the Nike ad slogan, just do it. Had they made a big deal out of achieving the communist ideal, waving banners and having marches, they would have been decimated like the Parisian Communards. Instead, they just proceeded to build democratic cooperatives and citizen governing bodies underneath the larger corporate state. This is true of the Zapatistas in Mexico as well.

There are cooperative businesses in the U.S. including bakeries, taxi companies, industrial engineering firms and laundry services. In fact, we have a long cooperative tradition. Most Americans prior to the 20th century considered wage slavery one step above indentured servitude. By the 1870's slightly over half the workforce worked for wages. Most Americans were farmers and crafts workers. In my research on this issue, I came across a book called “For All People” by John Curl. It's a tome densely packed with details of our American history of cooperative work. Cooperatives were the dominant model of work in prior to the 1870's, from mutual aid associations to cooperatives formed by early strikers. Cooperative efforts included the Troy Foundries, the Baltimore Society, Associationist cooperatives, The Grange and many others. There were cooperative factories, warehouses farms and stores. Credit Unions are a vestige of this era. There are also housing and apartment co-ops.

The cooperative partnership is a less stressful and more empowering model in that everyone involved has true ownership and a voice in how things are done. This increases personal initiative and rewards the work ethic directly, far more than a dead end job in which one is a powerless disposable cog. In eliminating bosses and having a democratic workplace, it reduces stress and increases our freedom beyond the workplace.

Cooperative community is an important way to overcome our terror of bosses, banks, and landlords but unless we extend cooperative democracy to government, it doesn't address the larger issues of global corporate rule, threats of war, and the environmental destruction which threaten all of us. That requires a much larger national and global effort rooted in our awareness of the diseased system that threatens us. It demands that we face the inability of a market system based on fossil fuels and endless competitive growth in a finite world to effectively address the existential threat of climate change. It means realizing our common interests as a species beyond the artificial barriers of states and tribalisms. It means understanding class dynamics and the continuing progress of our struggle towards emancipation from the oppression of self-serving elites. It means coming together, standing against injustice and building alternative sustainable cooperative democracies in an interdependent world.

We can and should celebrate our historic victories as working people, including the Bolshevik revolution, learning from them so as to avoid the mistakes and pitfalls of the past while pressing forward to a free and viable future.

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