Beatrix Campbell Reflections on the Revolution and today’s Social Democracy
Reflections on the Revolution and today’s Social Democracy
The SEARCH Foundation arranged a two-week speaking tour by British socialist feminist activist Bea Campbell to mark the Centenary of the Russian Revolution and its meaning and lessons for today. Bea spoke on current issues of inequality, neoliberalism, the renewed interest in radical reforms and socialism, and what lessons the left might draw from the Russian Revolution and what happened in the 100 years since. Here is a compilation of her talks for Australian Options.
The Russian Revolution and the lost promise of communism?
The Russian revolution was an epochal moment in human history – it had, to paraphrase the poet Yeats, a terrible beauty. It was a miraculous event for those who made it happen. The majority classes of the most oppressed people in in Eurasia, took power. That’s absolutely astounding; it cannot be underestimated – those were days that shook the world.
The revolution changed the way that people imaged what ordinary people could do. It was an inspiration for workers everywhere, because the people became the subject of history, the makers of history. That was its triumph. It was a hugely inspiring, momentous, miraculous series of events.
But these events were instantly beset by overwhelming problems. Its tragedy was that it was too early, too besieged, a victim of its own success. Too early in the sense that the revolution had to improve a state and a political culture in the midst of world war. Too besieged, in the sense that European monarchies and capitalist states sought to isolate and undermine the fledgling state.
The conditions in which it happened, as the revolutionaries themselves knew, were contingent and constrained. The civil society of Russia was, and remains, underdeveloped; the means of production were primitive and, ultimately, were compromised by the command economy, the means of social reproduction scarcely contemplated, and remained permanently marginal.
The notion of surviving as a socialist project in their own solitary state wasn’t in the imagination of the Bolsheviks who were part of a vigorous international network of revolutionary activists who stretched from the United Kingdom to Poland to the US, and then what became the USSR. The revolution occurred at what were very early moments in the most developed embryonic democracies in the world - which did not include Russia .For example, women didn’t yet have universal suffrage in Britain in 1917.
As a whole the revolutionaries were entombed by every imaginable block and barricade. They were instantly faced with the invasion of the West, who just didn’t want it to happen. The Revolution was not a particularly violent moment, but it was immediately beset by violent invasion, and then after the two, three years of that, they’re in the midst of a hugely violent civil war. I think part of the problem of trying to make sense of what the Revolution mean to us now is that the narrative of the Revolution, however much you feel attached to it, has become hugely compromised by that history of violence and the feeling that it was doomed.
It is impossible for us now to understand what that violence meant for Russians in their everyday life. If you’ve been in five years of bloody war, you’ve had your Revolution, you’ve taken power, you’ve done this unimaginably majestic thing, and yet life is very hard for everybody. Not only are the material conditions of people terribly hard, but war has ruinous effects on economies and societies. The revolution also had to deal with the aftermath of an entire generation of men who are living with trauma, and with the difficulty of trying to improvise at the same time a new economic system. The revolution promised Russian women equality but they experienced this as exhaustion and exploitation - the sexism of Russian socialism was one of the conditions of its undoing.
Another important set of questions about the revolution is about the early moments of the modern progressive political parties that were being formed in the first decades of the 20th century. These were formed amidst a huge cleavage between a Marxist left that brought the revolutions and mainstream social democracy who, in the main, didn’t. That cleavage persisted for 50 to 60 years. And it’s only resolved, in some senses, because the Soviet Union, as such, ended.
The end of the Soviet Union and the consequential end of the Cold War has led to the proliferation of war and to a tremendous dispiriting sense of defeat amongst social democrats across the world. Plus the global impact of the triumph of neoliberalism. Indeed, the language of neoliberalism has almost become the language of life. Currently, something very interesting is happening - the language is changing, and people’s imagination about what could be possible in radical politics is really being most marvellously shaken up.
What social democracy did for me
My family were communists, and I’m shaped by that and by the way that democratic socialism after the Second World War created a welfare state. I am a creature of the welfare state. My education, my home, my health, all of these are the gift of that welfare state. And also a sense that the working class was a class that had to be answered and addressed and heeded, and that we weren’t just problems of history. A hugely optimistic moment for working class people, and it was for me.
My parents thought happiness was a kitchen with cupboards in it. We didn’t think that council (public) housing was poor people’s housing, it was where people lived. Many people of my generation lived in that way. It was the majority form of working-class housing. Now it isn’t. The working class was the majority class in Britain until relatively recently. Our sense of class belonging hung on for a long time. Only very recently, in the last few years, has that changed. The majority of people in Britain now don’t think that they’re working class. We are yet to discover the consequences which may not be quite what we expected.
Thatcherism and the transformation of welfare states everywhere, followed by the economic crash of 2008 and then the prevailing austerity programmes, are a terrible defeat for progressive politics and for the working class. Whatever gets to be put together now, whatever kind of recovery gets built, is being built in the aftermath of defeat. All sorts of things have to be reimagined and reinvented. It’s a very, very interesting moment, I think, and it does, in a funny kind of a way, go back to 1917.
Something to be reclaimed is that socialism was always about democracy, emancipation, social justice, and equality. Now, the USSR did not become a model of those things. It is hardly a model for young people, or anyone else, looking of a radical imaginative project.
But we, the left, do have to reinvent a model of socialist democracy. We have to deal with a global capitalism that is a completely different phenomenon to 1917, or indeed 1945. We can’t rely on a given vocabulary and a given perspective. But what we have got is amazing
resilience of people’s commitment to the idea that democracy might be good. I don’t think that it’s been, in some cases, very good. But when they do have an experience of it that engages them, then it is good. The equality and the values that people adhere to, they may not know what it means, may not know how to do it, but they like it. And people are very fearful for the earth. Again, they do not necessarily know what to do about it, and they’re not helped in thinking about what to do about it by current governments and states.
Feminism and socialism
Many women from the left had experiences of revolutionary politics or progressive politics in the US and in the UK in the 1960s, and emerged from that with a really stringent critique of the sexism of the ’60s. I think this was especially important for Communist Party women. We were part of the element within the Communist Party that was anti-Stalinist, that was against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Russia in 1968, that was against a kind of authoritarian performance of communism. Feminism was entirely part of that critique.
We were part of a redemptive project seeking a way of being communist that wasn’t horrible or Stalinist. The Women’s Liberation Movement had a bounty of new ideas and new ways of doing politics that were hugely challenging to all traditional forms. We were totally against importing the ideas of the invincibility of the vanguard party into the Women’s Movement. In fact, we wanted the Party to go the other way and learn from the Women’s Movement how to stop being authoritarian.
And so, when we set up Red Rag, it was partly to give voice and space to a kind of left feminism. We didn’t call it a socialist - feminist magazine. We didn’t work on the assumption that those two things were necessarily compatible. We didn’t know. We were going to try and work it out.
We were faced with another dilemma that the labour movement was the great mass movement in Britain that promoted equality, but didn’t practise it. Indeed, it was a major instrument of the organisation of inequality in the workplace. It was implicated in inequality in the workplace , and so we had a critique of labourism and of capitalism and were trying to give voice to that as well.
Thoughts on Corbyn
Something extraordinary is now afoot. Jeremy Corbyn stood in the 2015 ALP leadership election because he was part of a coterie of people who, as it were, had kept the flame, and said, “Go on, it’s your turn, you go and do it this time.” So he did, never expecting in a thousand years to win.
During that leadership election campaign people turned up in their hundreds prepared to listen to a slightly boring speaker (Corbyn is not the best speaker in the world ) who enunciated ideas that people could believe in and think were possible, radical and do-able. For example, ideas for a public housing programme and about a foreign policy predicated on peace and justice rather than war, rape and pillage.
That had not happened for a very, very, very long time. Not since the early ’80s before New Labour liquidated the space for such ideas and made them seem ridiculous and impossible. Well, we now know, of course, that they’re not ridiculous. They’re reasonable. And they’re not impossible, they are doable. And indeed, they are necessary. But the amazing thing was that these ideas could be promoted precisely because it was a party leadership election. Had they been put forward as resolutions at party conference it wouldn’t have worked.
People really believed it could happen, and it did happen. And of course they were then confronted with the devastating bad behaviour of the parliamentarians who, lest we forget, were shaped in the image of Blair and New Labour. The Labour parliamentarians were stunned and furious, and they sabotaged the project for a good two years. They now know the game’s up, and they need to shut up and join it or do something else with themselves. Recently some interesting and surprising voices, beginning to emerge, saying, “Hold on a second, this is good, this is really good. What’s to not like about the public housing programme? What’s to not like about a foreign policy that is predicated on peace and justice rather than war, rape and pillage?” You know, what’s not to like? So it’s crucial that those ideas were aired in a leadership election.
Another thing - and I found this rather lovely - here’s this bloke about who people just say “Yes”. He’s disciplined, he’s likeable, he’s amiable, he’s a nice bloke, he doesn’t lie, he doesn’t bullshit, he says what he means, and he thinks that what he means is worth it. And people love that, and they forgive the slight boringness, because they just think, “Yes.” And the fact that he was known to wear a jumper that his mother had knitted, and the Westminster commentariat saying, “Oh, you’re wearing a jumper. Who knitted that jumper?” He says, “Well, my mother, actually.”
The entire Westminster commentariat has been discombobulated by the ‘Corbynistas’. What they regarded as symptoms of Corbyn’s un-electability – his jumpers, his cap, his allotment, his jam-making, his bike, and his honourable socialism – have proved to be the opposite. Westminster is learning to live with a leader who is an honest advocate of something we have not heard for decades – democratic socialism. For the first time in my lifetime, there is a Labour leadership wedded to gender equality, to anti-racism and anti-imperialism, to foreign policy anchored in peace and justice, and re-invigorated commitment to re-distribution and a welfare state. For example, Labour shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry (who’s a real star in all of this) said “We want a foreign policy based on peace and justice.” We haven’t heard those words for a long time.
Labour is now the biggest political party in Europe, with around 600,000 members. By the time of the next general election it may comprise a million members. What is yet to emerge, however, is a new political culture, a new activism by those thousands of members. Labour’s difficulty is that the centralisation of governance, the decline of the local state and privatisation of the utilities, has shrunk the space of politics. Will the members merely be part of an electoral machine? Or will the ‘democratic surge’ manifest itself – as it has elsewhere in Europe? The Labour Party has a scientific, surgical election machine but has yet to perform as more than an electoral machine and become a social movement. Let us hope this happens.
Bea Campbell is a Writer, Feminist, Green Party, Playwright, Broadcaster, Social Commentator. Her most recent book is The End of Equality.
The assistance of Clare Ozich, the editor of Green Agenda, is gratefully acknowledged; https://greenagenda.org.au/2017/11/bea-campbell/#more-1862