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Book review A class analysis

ANDREW MURRAY recommends Walter Rodney's 'Third World' perspective on the Russian revolution

The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World
by Walter Rodney
(Verso, £16.99)

WALTER RODNEY was one of the outstanding fighters for socialism and liberation of the 20th century. His How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, pioneering in its attempts to analyse the sources and consequences of imperial super-exploitation, is a classic of historical materialism.

Rodney was also a front-line activist and it was his immersion in the political struggle that led to his assassination at the age of 38 in his native Guyana in 1980, almost certainly at the instigation of the Forbes Burnham government of the time.

This book is based on lectures about the Russian revolution, delivered in Tanzania in the early 1970s when that country was pioneering the theory and practice of “African socialism,” and they deepen our understanding of Rodney’s politics and outlook.

They reveal a man immersed in the classics of Marxism and rock solid in his class outlook and commitments but unwilling to be confined within any dogmatic approach to the questions he addressed.

That said, the subtitle of the book is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, Rodney was himself a Third World revolutionary and the lectures were indeed delivered to classes in newly liberated Africa. But the analyses he develops, always interesting and sometimes profound, are not for the most part very different from those a European Marxist might have offered in, say, Berlin at the time.

Today, I believe, Rodney would spend far more time explicitly considering the impact the October revolution had on Africa and Asia and the part it played in moving peoples hitherto regarded as marginal or peripheral to the world revolutionary process centre stage. One could argue that no other legacy of 1917 has been more enduring and consequential.

He would also surely consider the reciprocal impact liberation movements and the political self-activity of the peasantry have had on our understandings of socialism and movements for liberation.
Nevertheless, the material we have, scrupulously worked up from his surviving lecture notes by Robin Kelley and Jessie Benjamin, is important in its own right.

Rodney’s method is mainly polemical, addressing the historiography of the revolution. He ridicules, through every chapter, bourgeois and sometimes “dissident Marxist” critiques of the revolution and the early Soviet Union. Most of this holds up pretty well, yet on other points the near 50-year antiquity of his arguments is more obvious.

His main approach to the subject is a sort of qualified orthodoxy. He generally supports the main thrust of Soviet historians’ handling of the issues thrown up by 1917 and after as against that of their critics but often pokes at the narrow and blinkered Soviet presentations.

In one chapter, he dismisses the main Trotskyist criticisms of the post-Lenin development of the USSR, while in another he lavishes praise on Trotsky’s great History of the Russian Revolution.
Kautsky is handled respectfully, although his indifference to the peasantry — “it just never entered his mind that the peasant was capable of actively participating in the revolutionary process” — is rightly slated.

The Soviet nationalities policy is broadly supported, although the post-war development of great-Russian chauvinism in the USSR is criticised. Admiration for Mao and the Chinese revolution is evident, although China was not the central theme of the lectures.

Rodney’s approach throughout is class partisan — he sees historians as divided, like the world, into two opposing camps, with the dividing line informing their judgements on Soviet power. One of the book’s merits is that it brings together a wide range of issues and analyses, from the pre-1917 development of Russian capitalism to the relationship between class power and democracy in one book.

Any reader will find a wealth of useful arguments and information here. His conclusion is framed by his support for world revolution, still such a dynamic idea at the time: “…the Soviet revolution of 1917 and the subsequent construction of socialism emerges as a very positive historical experience from which we ourselves can derive a great deal as we move to confront similar problems.”

That seems hardly dated at all.

 

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