Actual Images of the Russian Revolution of 1917: Dynamics and Perspectives

The following paper was presented at the conference “After the End of Revolution: Constitutional Order amid the Crisis of Democracy,” co-organized by the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute and the National Research University Higher School of Economics, September 1–2, 2017, Moscow. For additional details about the conference as well as other upcoming events, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

It is important not only to analyze the legacy of the Russian Revolution of 1917 from the point of view of historical science, but also to bear in mind its impact on the modern information and ideological processes. Discussing the Russian Revolution has become a way to think and talk about today, and different approaches to the discussion correspond to different views on modernity and different political ethics. There are five approaches to the evaluation of the Russian Revolution in the ideological space of today: the classic liberal, the neoliberal, the Western left, the Russian left, and the traditionalist approach.

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Russia’s Many Futures

The following paper was presented at the conference “After the End of Revolution: Constitutional Order amid the Crisis of Democracy,” co-organized by the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute and the National Research University Higher School of Economics, September 1–2, 2017, Moscow. For additional details about the conference as well as other upcoming events, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

Russia will have many futures because it has had many pasts. Three aspects in particular stand out in any discussion of Russia’s future. The first is what Marxists used to call the “present political conjuncture.” In other words, the fate of Russia is inextricably linked with the broader developments in global political practices. It is within this framework that one needs to consider the “post-revolutionary” character of Russia. Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika (restructuring) began in 1985 soon after his accession to the Soviet leadership, but the great ebb tide of emancipatory socialism had begun long before. The post-war Keynesian and welfare state consensus had already begun to unravel with the end of the long post-war economic boom in 1970 and the move to flexible exchange rates in August 1971 as Richard Nixon moved away from the Bretton Woods system of pegging the dollar to gold. The 1970s saw the first moves toward financial liberalization, and Margaret Thatcher’s election in May 1979 signaled, as Eric Hobsbawm put it in September 1978 in a famous article in Marxism Today, that the “Forward March of Labour” was halted. The election of Ronald Reagan in November 1980 further indicated the beginning of an offensive against the ideology and geopolitics of revolutionary socialism. In its place the gathering wave of the neoliberal transformation of capitalism transformed the relationship of state to society, the character of work, and the understanding of citizenship in advanced capitalist societies.

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Paris Book Festival Names Ellen Hinsey’s Mastering the Past for Top Honors

Ellen Hinsey’s Mastering the Past: Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe and the Rise of Illiberalism has been announced as the winner of the 2017 Paris Book Festival, which honors the best of international publishing. A study of a critical shift in the European political landscape, Mastering the Past examines how populism, nationalism, and authoritarian rule have returned a quarter of a century after the changes following the Soviet Union’s collapse. Eyewitness reports examine the key events of that time and relate them to current conditions. Hinsey’s outstanding research and interpretation of the events provide fascinating insights on what is happening in this key corner of the globe, making it well worthy of international attention from the publishing community.

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Cornelius Castoriadis on Russian Society

“Facing the War” is a translation from the first section of Devant la guerre, Cornelius Castoriadis’s least regarded work within English-speaking circles. The reason for this marginalization is its central claim that Russian society had transformed into a stratocratic regime, with increased probability for an escalation into a Third World War. Castoriadis’s critics claimed he had missed signs of perestroika and glasnost already on the horizon. Viewed from this perspective, history could not have been more cruel to Castoriadis. However, the value of his work does not depend on a predictive mode of political analysis, a point that is clearly prefaced in this work: calls for predictive accuracy ignore the radical character of historical contingency. In fact, the unexpected events put into motion later by Gorbachev only strengthen Castoriadis’s perspective in the sense that such a development represents the deeper problem of historical indeterminacy, and it is in this respect that his analysis is finely tuned to any society’s condition of historical contingency.

Castoriadis’s analysis here is an updated version of the assessment of Russian society that had been developed within Socialisme ou Barbarie. Castoriadis makes a compelling argument that Russia had regenerated itself into a full-blown stratocracy, armed to the teeth and yet still unable to provide its citizens with a functional civic bureaucracy; a decade later he reflects that a core argument of “Facing the War” was that brute force had become the sole signification holding this society together. Castoriadis’s argument operates at two levels: as a political analysis of Russian bureaucratic spheres (the comparison of military capacity between superpowers and a critique of rational determinism within the justification of Cold War strategy—i.e., M.A.D.); and as a political judgement of the imaginary significations that served to orient Russian society. It is through the latter level that lessons on historical contingency are astutely relevant to the contemporary world situation.

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Kafka in Eastern Europe

In “Franz Kafka in Eastern Europe,” Antonin J. Liehm addresses the impact of Kafka on both the communist literary sphere and the regime following the May 1963 Liblice Conference, an international symposium dealing with Kafka’s life and work. At first glance, this symposium does not appear to be remarkable: Kafka, known for such works as “The Metamorphosis” (1915) and “The Castle” (1926), was born in Prague in 1883, and he worked there as a lawyer before dying in 1924 in the sanatorium at Kierling, located in Klosterneuburg, Austria. Nonetheless, the symposium revealed that the socialist regimes were less totalitarian than supposed, if only for a short time, and it also attributed to Kafka a significant role in the beginning of cultural democratization, which then spread to other spheres.

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The Ukraine Crisis and the Death of Europe

The following paper was presented at the recent Telos in Europe conference on “The Idea of Europe,” held in L’Aquila, Italy, on September 5–8, 2014.

The Ukraine crisis reflected the continuation in new forms of what used to be called the East-West conflict. After the end of the Cold War in 1989–91, as a result of Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt to reform the Soviet Union based on the ideas of the “new political thinking,” no inclusive and equitable peace system was established. Instead, an asymmetrical peace was imposed on Russia. The Soviet Union disintegrated in December 1991, and Russia emerged as the “continuer state,” assuming the burdens, treaty obligations, and nuclear responsibilities of the former USSR. As far as Russia was concerned, the end of the Cold War had been a shared victory: everyone stood to gain from the end of the division of Europe, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. The institutions of the Cold War in the East were dismantled, above all the Warsaw Treaty Organization (the Warsaw Pact), but on the other side the organizations of the Cold War were extended, above all in the form of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

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