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Rethinking revolution on the centenary of the Russian Revolution

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Image: Wayne Roberts

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and about a hundred real, existing socialists turned up at Toronto's Lula Lounge to celebrate the launch of this year's issue of Socialist Register, dedicated to critical but positive reflections on the significance of the processes unleashed by that historic event.

As old and tired as the topic might seem, both the launch and the book, called Rethinking Revolution, bring several up-to-date and challenging views to light. Though the Russian Revolution and its aftermath rank in my mind as one of the most saddening and irredeemable experiences in history, the Lula Lounge presenters and  Rethinking Revolution essayists managed to put some new wine in old bottles.

I liked one thing featured in both the book and the launch event.

The evaluation of the Revolution goes well beyond the revolutionary -- or more accurately, in my view, insurrectionary -- moment.

Greg Albo, a Socialist Register co-editor with Leo Panitch and host of the launch, introduced the evening by saying that building the capacity of working people for self-government is more important than the actual insurrection. This view was confirmed by almost all the evening speakers, as well as essayists in the book.

I believe this issue of agency and capacity accurately defines the central issue of radical change instigated from below, even if the really existing Russian Revolution dispensed with both open government elections and self-government of popular institutions early and definitively.

Oddly enough, no launch speaker or essayist, much as they expressed commitment to self-government as the pivot of revolutionary change, talked or wrote seriously about the fact that the Russian Revolution and its proclaimed Communist imitators in China, Vietnam and Cuba have never allowed, let alone supported, open and free elections of government officials. Nor have they empowered people to run their own daily lives in workplaces and communities as they choose.

Notwithstanding this eerie silence during the evening, the point about the indispensability of a capacity for self-government is indispensable for anyone contemplating deep-going and positive change in society. It means that today's and tomorrow's activists should feature empowerment as part of the heart and soul of all social movements, and not focus exclusively on changing the opinion of employers or governments on any particular issue in dispute.

Nurturing such empowerment is the most vital expression of a commitment to what all essayists in the book and all presenters at the launch agreed on -- the need to incorporate a spirit of bold, self-confident and revolutionary imagination in today's social movements.

That is one way of showing the legacy of the Russian revolution has been learned: that there is no apocalyptic moment when the world turns on its axis, but only continual growth of what the book's lead essayists -- by two of Canada's most distinguished social historians, Bryan Palmer and Joan Sangster --refer to as the "longue durée," the long push to gain freedom from deeply embedded habits of mind, organization and relationships. We can certainly apply this perspective to the coming revolution around sustainability.

For those who want to develop their thinking on this central issue of social change, exemplary essays in the book by Hilary Wainwright about the British Labour Party and by Fabien Escalona on Eurocommunism are among the most insightful I have read.

Both the launch and the book are outstanding illustrations of the fact that Marxian socialists have no understanding whatsoever about food or social movements related to food.

I surprise myself that I'm still surprised by this, but then, I once shared the same heritage as most of the authors. I'm not sure what is that so ticks me off about their overlooking of food and agriculture. After all, they also ignore clothing, shelter, cities and the internet, all of which might be deemed important to radicals trying to be relevant to their era.

Is it that there was no reference to the Russian peasantry and their role in a revolution fought under the banner of the famous slogan: Peace, Land and Bread? Is it the total lack of acknowledgment that all socialist revolutions of the past 100 years have been conducted in peasant countries, often with peasant leaderships? Is it the fact that several essays focused on the need to emphasize women's struggles over the past 100 years, but none mentioned that food preparation and production have always remained the main household occupation of women both in and outside the paid workforce?  

Or is it the fact that the only reference to anyone who was "hungry" was the result of a misspelled reference on page 21 to the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956?

As both the launch panel and author descriptions in the book make clear, the habitat of today's revolutionaries is no longer union halls, but the lecture halls of universities. But it is troubling that none of the professors associated with the book show any knowledge that hunger and food insecurity  -- an issue for some 40 per cent of university students in Canada, according to recent reports, as well as a burden for the most exploited, oppressed and disadvantaged people in any land  -- expose a grievous sickness in the economic order that people claiming to be part of a revolutionary heritage should have some acquaintance of.

The authors are also evidently absent from the informal life of people in food movements, often spent in convivial experiences around food, the great socializing force of humanity, or in building networks promoting  local and sustainable food systems, one of the great really existing projects for building the capacity for personal and group agency and self-government.

The great socialist anarchist feminist Emma Goldman once proclaimed that "if I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution."

I think the same holds true for the bread and roses of good food with good friends and family members.  If I can't eat local, sustainable and slow food, I don't want to be part of your revolution.

A paragraph was added to the original to clarify the way Rethinking Revolution addresses sustainability.

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Image: Wayne Roberts


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