Thursday, January 05, 2017

And if they had failed?

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This year is the centenary of the October Revolution, and everyone is sharpening their agendas.

I expect the dominant narrative will be that the whole thing was a tragic mistake, and that if only Kerensky could have retained power, today Russia would be the new Germany. Or something.


It's a delight to read an intelligent, scholarly account of events through the eyes of a slightly second-rank player. You've heard of Leninists and Trotskyists but seldom of 'Bukharinists'.

No agenda, except to rehabilitate this most-traduced man.

I'm not far into this weighty tome, but two things immediately stand out:
  1. In the summer of 1917, the workers and peasants across Russia were out of control. The peasants were busy expropriating the landlords and creating that regressive peasant-utopia of small self-owned landholdings; the workers had seized the factories and were running them themselves; the army had elected soldiers' councils and was ungovernable.

  2. Kerensky's Provisional Government of moderates and liberals was powerless, while many prominent Bolsheviks balked at leadership. It was only Lenin's iron determination to take charge that avoided a collapse into chaos, probably followed by a German takeover .. and later Allied dismemberment.

Cohen is clear that the new Bolshevik Government had no clue as to what to do next; nothing in the Marxist canon provided a blueprint. Then came the Civil War, as the counter-revolution plus Allied forces tried to topple the new revolutionary power, and top-down bureaucratic command-and-control became the order of the day.

Bukharin was instrumental in the introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1921, which revived the moribund economy (for more about that, scroll down here).


I keep coming back to Marxism on this blog: you will look in vain for a clearer analysis of capitalism as a construct of specific recurrent human social relationships. But the focus on the social construction of reality is not well-grounded in human nature. We know a lot more than Marx did.

Capitalism goes with the grain of human nature (at least a human nature with a certain level of intelligence, conscientiousness, agreeableness, trust and low time preference) - it was not consciously designed.

Post-Capitalism - as conceived within the Marxist tradition - requires an attainable human nature at the outer limits of a Social Justice Warrior's wish-list.*


I continually speculate on the future target social architecture which synthesises our best understanding of human psychology with the social insights of Marxism. My best attempt, compassionate libertarianism:
  • a safety net for those who don't cope
  • maximal equality of opportunity 
  • highly-constrained elite power.

As Marx suggested, this depends on a much greater development of the productive forces, and as Marx didn't say, some improvements in 'human capital'.*

Scott Alexander once suggested that the task of the current generation might be to take care of the world until we get AI automation and genetic engineering to work. Perhaps that's task enough.


* OK, here's the nightmare.

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