I consider my small intervention, in the form of this blog, in the continuity of the Bolsheviks and the October Revolution. Not only because I want all forms of oppression, exploitation, and misery to be destroyed, but I also desire an ambitious, positive program as well, such as how Bogdanov dreamed of socialism in Mars, or how delegates representing millions of workers around the world, met in the First Congress of the Communist International to draft a program for a world, socialist republic. I desire a planetary, democratic community, where individuals of all nations, genders, and ethnicities, get together to direct and plan the world-system for the purpose of emancipating humanity from toil and misery. In contrast, the capitalist economy is a blind and purposeless demiurge that turns children in the periphery into soldiers and slaves, citizens in the first world into emotionally damaged and medicated automatas, and cruel idiots into presidents, CEOS and autarchs.
I expect for this month that the internet will be bursting with didactic lessons on the October Revolution – how certain, socio-economic conditions of Russia and tactical decisions of the Bolsheviks determined the revolutionary overthrow of the Constituent Assembly, and what these lessons mean for socialists today. Different groups, depending on academic pedigree or sectarian loyalties, will excavate different lessons – with some claiming that we need a party modelled by the bolshevik approach, while others will suggest that the era of ambitious political programs is over, given that the structure of capitalism today has essentially fractured the identity of the old mass worker which the radical socialist program was built upon. Finally, some like certain maoists, will argue that revolution is a “science” that is updated by revolutionary events, with China updating Russia, and Russia updating Marx.
The large spectrum of different conclusions implies that the problem of didacticism is hard. However, I think it is because all these agents are asking the wrong questions. Revolutions are abrupt changes: extreme, highly variable, non-linear, almost unpredictable, but usually under-predicted – in short, they are black swans. I’ve talked about the black swan before – basically it is a pop-finance/statistics term that describes highly impactful but unpredictable events, like the invention of the internet, the publication of Ulysses by James Joyce, or the October Revolution. Other black swans are earthquakes, nuclear meltdowns, and terrorist attacks. This “black swan” dynamic makes revolutions incredibly epistemically opaque to us, and also bounds the type of questions we can ask about them.
Trying to forecast whether revolution is possible on not in a given timescale is like trying to forecast the next earthquake and its magnitude. Many radicals treat revolutions as a function of certain inputs – for example, how the pressure of a gas is proportional to its temperature. So if you can excavate from history the variables that are coupled to revolution, you can analyze those parameters and predict whether revolution is in the horizon and how it will look like. However, the statistics of revolutions are more comparable to earthquakes – earthquakes, like revolutions, have technically concrete, quasi-deterministic causes, but they are usually epistemically opaque to us. You can in hindsight analyze the dynamics of earthquakes, by solving a set of physical equations in a computer, but you cannot possibly know when will the next earthquake be, or what will be its magnitude. Similarly, historians can analyze in hindsight what were the causes of a specific revolution, but they are incredibly ill equipped to delimit the possibilities/impossibilities of the next revolutionary event. This does not mean that future prognosis based on longue durée history is epistemically prohibited, but that history can only be used to forecast slow-changing, long averages, not shocks and sudden jumps. Revolution, if anything, is the quintessential example of a historical shock, therefore no amount of PhDs and “brilliance” can prognosticate the possible horizons of the next revolution. Whole traditions of socialism exist that have “caked” in them a strategy of revolution or social change, but many of them are nothing more than dogma.
The October revolution actually gives us an empirical example on the unpredictability of revolution. The soviets and the bolsheviks didn’t entertain the possibility of overthrowing the Constituent Assembly until a few months before the assault of the winter palace, after a long and gruelling polemic about whether Russia was ripe for socialism or not. The revolutionary timescale where everything was done and decided in their case was less than a year long. In fact, the Marxist orthodoxy based on longue durée historical analysis at that time predicted that Russia was not ready for socialism, given that it was underdeveloped and hadn’t gone fully through capitalism yet. Yet, countering all intellectual and theoretical expectations, and therefore embodying a statistical black swan, Russia experienced the first socialist revolution in history.
In contrast to the “historical-academic” approach, a better method for the study of revolutions from the perspective of a socialist is inverse risk-management. Just as how engineers and planners might design buildings to withstand earthquakes or massive floods – events of low probability but with high impact, socialists should be “prepared” for the revolutionary window. Revolutions are low probability, high impact events, and the only possible epistemic approach to them is to be prepared. Just as how the capitalist state has plans in case of social decomposition, such as how the United States subsidizes agricultural production in order to have food sovereignty in case of a world-historic break-down, socialists should build their own infrastructure and presence in society, in a patient, thoughtful manner, in order to be prepared to ride the earthquake, so to speak.
What does this preparation consist of? That is the million dollar question. However one cannot extract the solution to this problem by looking simply at longue durée history, because such a study concerns with long, slow moving time-scales, while the concrete actions that need to be taken are short-termed and granular and extremely contingent to the conditions that exist now. Therefore, an “apple to apple” comparison between the old socialist parties, and how socialist parties in the 21th century should look like is impossible. Indeed, some socialist “pessimists” explain their position by simply stating that the conditions now are very different than the ones of 1917, and therefore a revolutionary, socialist party is an impossibility. However, the only thing we can know from such an argument is that a socialist party would look different than the one of 1917, which is a very banal assertion. Perhaps, a better approach is to look at the current existing social averages to start building a party in the mean time, while having flexible enough tactics that can be modified depending on future social contingencies. Such an approach would require engaging with current tried and tested modes of financing, organization, and media that are being developed by current, bourgeois organizations, while at the same time, taking into account longue durée historical analysis to develop a radical, principled socialist “maximum program”. Therefore, such a program would be inspired from the historical experiences of socialists, but “filtered” by granular tactics informed by modern scientific disciplines, current aesthetics and present values.