The following article was presented at the conference “After the End of Revolution: Constitutional Order amid the Crisis of Democracy”, co-organized by the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute and the National Research University Higher School of Economics, the 1st and September 2, 2017, Moscow. For more details on the conference as well as other upcoming events, please visit the Website of the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute.
It is important not only to analyze the legacy of the Russian Revolution of 1917 from the perspective of historical science, but also to keep in mind its impact on modern information and ideological processes. Discussing the Russian Revolution has become a way of thinking and speaking today, and different approaches to discussion correspond to different visions of modernity and different political ethics.
There are five approaches to assessing the Russian Revolution in today’s ideological space: the classical liberal approach, the neoliberal approach, the Western left, the Russian left, and the traditionalist approach.
The first approach evolved in the Cold War years and still retains a prominent place in contemporary Western sources. It can be called classic liberal approach. It is based on the values of the market economy, democracy and civil liberties. It is based on the belief that the February Revolution was good for Russia, while the October Revolution was absolute evil.
This approach states that the February Revolution had long been brewing in Russian society and was therefore inevitable. It was founded on European values, which gave the Russian people hope for democratic reforms according to Western models.
The October Revolution receives the opposite assessment and is described here as Russian fate, which had brought about the end of democratic beginnings and the beginning of terror and totalitarianism. The liberal approach calls the October Revolution “anti-European” and claims that it closed the window on Europe.
This approach was practicable throughout the Cold War and served the purpose of confrontation with the socialist bloc. Today, it remains a basic structure by inertia and supports the policy of de-Sovietization of several countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Pro-European governments also tend to adapt it to their needs by omitting the subject of February altogether from the public narrative and instead focusing on October, the Bolsheviks and their crimes. Stemming from the logic of war, this approach pursues the necessity of the “Tribunal” for post-October Soviet history and its condemnation at the international level.
The collapse of the USSR and the establishment of liberalism in Russia rendered the February/October confrontation irrelevant and ended the search for possible historical scenarios that would have served to avert disaster and redirect the energy of 1917 towards a peaceful path. Deprived of this contradiction, the classical liberal approach has lost its popularity.
Where this liberal approach was linked to specific historical themes and was based on the February-October dichotomy, the neoliberal The approach seems totally disconnected from historical events since it consists in exalting the idea of revolution as the engine of history and development. The February events are irrelevant, and the October Revolution is historically and morally separated from all subsequent Bolshevik actions. Eager to decouple the idea of revolution from historical Soviet reality, neoliberalism is ready to go even further. The Bolshevik theory of social democracy is separated from its practical application in Russia. It is only characterized negatively insofar as it has been “distorted” by Russian reality, Bolshevism and the figures of Lenin and Stalin. Social democratic ideas are seen positively as having their origins in European philosophical thought and supporting democratic freedoms.
It is quite possible that in the future, when the ideas of Bolshevism and the figure of Lenin are separated from their associations with Soviet history and with Russia, they will become a legal part of the neoliberal ideology, of which the doctrine is based on the idea of the necessity of revolutions, crises and conflicts.
The classical liberal approach to the subject of revolution was traditionally opposed in the West by left view of the revolution.
the western left approach to the events of 1917 was formed in the 20th century at the same time as the right or the classical liberal approach. The word “Western” in this case is a definition of values, not a geographical area. It is based on three propositions: (1) that the events of February in Russia should only be seen in the context of October, and not as a separate revolution; (2) that the October Revolution is a historic achievement and a blessing; and (3) that since Stalin, the Bolshevik regime in Russia had little in common with socialist ideals. The classical left defended the idea of socialist revolution and thus differed from the classical western liberals.
The so-called “new left” continues to be inspired by the idea of revolution, but in a broader sense. They seek to overthrow the hierarchy of global capital and seek revenge for a long period of history beginning with the era of geographical discoveries. The new left is not very interested in the events of 1917, and it sees no contradiction between February and October, and very little between Lenin and Stalin.
The essence of their approach is a definitely positive attitude towards the phenomenon of revolution (in this case, the anti-capitalist type). Therefore, ideologically, both the old and the new left adhere to the neoliberal approach.
The modern Russian left and socialists (unlike the western left) hold in high esteem the memory of the Soviet socialist project and the Great October Socialist Revolution. Unlike the Western left, they tend to evaluate positively not only the Lenin era but also the entire Soviet period until the end of the Soviet Union. Russian socialists base their beliefs not only on the idea of social justice but also on historical memory.
When Lenin’s monuments are publicly demolished in different countries as political demonstrations, various Russian political, religious and social strata often perceive them as acts of Russophobia, although their attitude towards Lenin may vary from love to hate. The idea of the left in Russia is linked to the specific historical experience and, consciously or not, is considered part of the Russian identity.
Alongside the approaches given to the events of 1917 and the revolutionary phenomenon, there exists today another point of view, which is called the traditionalist approach. It cannot be called conservative, because it does not seek to “conserve” a particular historical period. On the contrary, it is metahistorical and appeals to the Christian worldview. In modern Russia, this approach can be found both in the intellectual sphere and in the public consciousness. It is based on the idea that revolutions bring only evil and are imposed by an evil will, however beautiful its slogans. There is no end that justifies revolutionary means. This idea is deeply rooted in Russian consciousness and has become particularly clear after the events of perestroika and the collapse of the USSR, and given the current era of instability that Russia and the world are currently experiencing. Even the term “revolution” has become associated in the Russian language with neoliberal ideology and the politics of Western interventionism.
This approach was particularly reinforced in Russian society and in Russian official political language in the early 2010s, against the background of attempts to implement a color revolution in Russia and the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis.
The traditionalist vision of the 1917 revolution and of the revolutionary phenomenon in general is also gradually developing in modern Western philosophical thought. This approach also rejects bourgeois, socialist or color revolutions. It is mostly shared by think tanks and philosophers whose views are close to traditional Christianity and who contrast the situation with the secular values that dominate the modern world.
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Therefore, from the point of view of political ethics, the diversity of approaches to the Russian Revolution is reduced to neoliberals and traditionalists.
The neoliberal approach is the direction in which the classical liberal approach and the western left are heading. The neoliberal approach pays less attention to February, pays more attention to October, justifies the events of October, and regards the phenomenon of revolution as a positive and important mechanism of historical progress and development of society. Here the theory of the revolution is separated from its tragic practices.
The traditionalist approach is strengthened in response to international instability and the rise of local conflicts, often exacerbated using revolutionary mechanisms. This approach is based on the thesis that revolutionary methods are inherently flawed.
Vasily A. Shchipkovdoctor of philosophy, is a lecturer at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), director of the school of Russian experts.