This article on the Russian Revolution by Lars T. Lih makes for interesting reading. He argues that leftist and liberal critics of the Soviet Union alike have over-emphasized doctrinal or ideological disputes, which were in fact meant to provide post-hoc rationalizations for decisions that had been made on other grounds. The key decision was whether some kind of accomodation must be made with the “bourgeois” educated class or whether the working class and its party would need to “go it alone.” Mensheviks favored the former, while the Bolsheviks obviously preferred the latter.
What’s striking to me about Lih’s argument is that he claims that both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks were empirically right about the situation on the ground — that really was the key decision. They were having the right argument. “Furthermore,” he says, “we cannot say that one side was wrong and the other right. Each side combined insight and wishful thinking…. In either case, we start, not with doctrinal insight or error, but with a strongly felt and essentially correct empirical view of Russian society in 1917.” As he summarizes the two positions:
Menshevik: Some sort of [conciliation] with educated society is necessary, and therefore a suitable “bourgeois” partner for this [conciliation] can be found (and besides, Russian faces a “bourgeois revolution” and therefore we must tolerate the “bourgeois” Provisional Government).
Bolshevik: [Conciliation] with educated society is impossible, and therefore the Russian proletariat is ready to take on the responsibilities of the revolutionary (and besides, Russia is ready to take “steps towards socialism”).
Having summarized the “insight,” he then turns to the “wishful thinking”:
For both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, a correct empirical view leads to a factual assertion that is based more on wishful thinking than on the realities. The Mensheviks have to insist that a suitable partner can be found in bourgeois society for carrying out the revolution’s goals (or, at least, that educated society can be bullied into cooperation by “pressure from below”). The situation is too horrible to contemplate if this is not the case.
The Bolsheviks have to insist that vast complicated policies of social transformation and crisis management can be carried out almost painlessly if only the proletariat asserts its class power. The situation is too horrible to contemplate if this is not the case.
The punchline, of course, turns out to be: “The situation was in fact horrible — too horrible to look straight in the face, too horrible to contemplate.” To be successful, the Russian Revolution did need the cooperation of the educated classes, but it just wasn’t going to happen. And in the end, the Bolsheviks won not because of greater ideological correctness, but because they had chosen the (mis)reading of the situation that favored autonomous action rather than waiting for a sympathetic faction of the educated classes to materialize. They may have made a mistake, but they were facing an unfixable problem — “the Russian Revolution is not a matter of making or avoiding mistakes, but a tragedy without an acceptable solution (that’s what tragedy is).”
To jump from the world-historical to the trivially pop-cultural, I was reminded of a principle from House that has always stuck with me: if there are two possible diagnoses, one with a treatment and one without, go with the one that has a treatment. In that case, though, the goal wasn’t necessarily a cure as such, but information that can lead to a sure diagnosis. If the treatment works, you know you guessed right; if it doesn’t, it may well kill the patient, but at least you’ll know for sure what the diagnosis is.
In politics, presumably knowledge as such is not the goal. It seems obscene to view the Soviet Union as a kind of live experiment where we can once and for all settle the debate over whether Russia could serve as the base for a worldwide socialist revolution under conditions of imperialism, whether you could “skip ahead” to socialism without going through a bourgeois revolution, whether socialism in one country was possible, etc. And whatever it is that the left collectively has learned seems to have produced decades of stagnation and paralysis — the nausea that inhibits action.
Once you’ve stared into the abyss of tragedy, into the reality of an unfixable problem, it seems that the only choice is to abandon the world — in favor of sectarian doctrinal debates that ignore empirical questions or an Adorno-esque aesthetic contemplation — and perhaps to wait for a new generation, naive and hopeful, that does not find it insulting or humiliating that they be asked to set the world right.