Two World Views of the Russian Revolution

The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World (Verso, 2018) compiles a series of lectures given by Walter Rodney, the black Guyanese radical, at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

Jesse Benjamin and Robin D.G. Kelley have done amazing work in editing and presenting these lectures as a book. Writing from the broad perspective of the anti-colonial and anti-capitalist “Third World,” and particularly from an underdeveloped Africa seeking to build socialism from next to nothing, Rodney’s penetrating lectures look to the events and historiography of the Russian Revolution—not in order to valorize those events for their own sake or to engage in a stale academic exercise, but to glean a revolutionary method and impetus for present struggles.

Rodney’s rejection of rigid models of historical interpretation and “necessary” trajectories of socialist development transcends Cold War limitations. Instead, his authentic use of Marxist historical materialism impels him to begin, per Lenin, with the “concrete analysis of concrete conditions.” This critical position—learning from but not copying the Soviet experience—not only leads to a deeper understanding of socialist history, but opens radical possibilities for present and future action.

Rodney’s perspective offers especially keen insights in the historiography and interpretation of the Russian Revolution itself, a subject that manifests in “two world views.” Rodney’s framing of this subject is not simply to say that history is never neutral; rather, it is both a philosophical and political argument stating that the way we narrate history is an outgrowth of preexisting social relations in a given time and place, undertaken by a particular social class. Moreover, historical events themselves, in their ability to materially transform social realities, have the possibility to shift the constitution of historical consciousness.

From this starting point, Rodney argues that there are two, antagonistic world views, or forms of historical interpretation, regarding the written histories of the Russian Revolution. Broadly speaking, these two world views represent “fundamentally opposed aspects of consciousness”: idealism and materialism, (rigid) metaphysics and (dynamic) dialectics, subjectivity and objectivity, individual and class, capitalist and socialist, bourgeois and Marxist.

But these two forms are not exactly mirror opposites of each other. Rather, the split serves to show how one of these views—the bourgeois—makes dubious claims to universality, rationality, dispassion, and spatiotemporal cohesion, while the other begins from the material realities and contingencies of class, social change, and the inherent contradictions between things.

History from the Bourgeois World View

The bourgeois view of the Russian Revolution centers the vantage point of the Western European/North American, capitalist class, but it obscures these particularities because it sees this experience as natural and timeless. To give credence to the Marxist view of history, Rodney writes, would be for the bourgeois scholar to “expose his own set of assumptions” and methodologies—something which goes against the inherent tendency of a ruling class ideology. But this false impartiality, which masks the fact that “European capitalism and imperialism (have) exploitation as their main objective,” is precisely why “there is every reason to seek an African view” of historical events, to question the official histories of the West by constructing an alternative history from the periphery.

According to Rodney, the bourgeois historical world view is characterized by three things:

It (1) claims to be concerned with humanity rather than a given class; (2) [displays a] high level of subjectivism; and (3) refuses to recognize contradictions, except at a superficial level.

Rodney surveys many of the Western bourgeois historians of the Revolution, showing how their class blindness, elitism, and focus on personalities rather than social forces lead them often to “absurd” positions. But this absurdity does not imply weakness. Rather, the hegemony of the bourgeois world view over “official” history is evident, especially when one looks at the university—the institution which, in Marxist terms, replicates on the “superstructural” level the logic of capitalism which forms the material, economic base.

The Western university reveals the strong connections between the objectives of the ruling capitalist class and the dominant form of historical consciousness (and other academic disciplines), which serves to create the ideological justification for the existence of the same ruling class. In terms of the historiography of the Russian Revolution, this truth can be seen most clearly in two areas: first, in the fact that prominent Western universities, backed by intellectual and political elites, gave prominent academic postings and platforms to anti-communist Russian émigrés (the “White Russians”); second, some of the top American academic institutions were directly allied with the capitalist state government, as was the case with Stanford’s Hoover Institution for War and Peace and Harvard’s Institute of Russian Research.

History from the Marxist World View

In contrast to the bourgeois world view, the Marxist world view of history is built on the realities of class, material objectivity, and contingency:

The basis of the Marxist world outlook is the notion of dialectical materialism. It is a notion that first of all recognizes that change and historical movement are dependent upon the contradictions within things and between things. Any form of logic other than dialectics assumes that when one has a given object the object remains constant and discrete in itself. The dialectical notion stresses that every phenomenon is constantly transforming itself, owing to its own internal contradictions and to contradictions between itself and other phenomena.

This dynamic methodology means that “it is within nature and the material conditions of existence that one must find the motive forces in history,” not in personalities or ideas. Most importantly, the narration of history itself becomes a political task, because, as a class conscious exercise, it takes the side of the workers and peasants. This shift in historical consciousness, rearing up against the bourgeois view of history, is made possible only because the classes of workers and peasants themselves, seizing the contradictions of tsarist Russia, were able to topple an authoritarian regime propped up by idealist notions.

For Rodney, the materialist view of history is clearly the superior, even if it is not entirely comprehensive (which, of course, is in its nature not to be—comprehensiveness being a conceit of bourgeois history). The Marxist historiography of the Russian Revolution carries on the same “revolutionary ideology” that instigated those events, but what is ultimately needed is to take and mold that revolutionary method for one’s own time and place. Such a task enables the potential for new narratives of history (an “African view of the Russian Revolution,” for example), just as it equips radicals with a theory of political struggle. As the editors Benjamin and Kelley write:

Rodney’s ‘two views’ perspective allowed him to see the West from outside, with double consciousness, and to seek a third path at the height of the Cold War—an alternative heralded by the signal fires of the Non-Aligned Movement and Third World Marxism… But the fundamental impulse of Rodney’s work remains our most urgent task: to join grounded revolutionary theory and history with the people in motion, in whatever form this takes.