Russia, Intelligentsia, and Ideological Purity
Revolution as a force in current American politics is a fairly odd concept. It seems that those who are most preoccupied with uprooting the system are those most inclined to limit the scope of their coalition. That those most infatuated with the idea of “revolution” are those most prone to limiting their ability to actually produce one. This is largely because they fail to understand that revolution succeeds based on its ability to appeal to a wide coalition of people and to improve their lives materially.
Preoccupation with ideology in any prospective revolution is dangerous. Particularly when that preoccupation is with the perceived purity of the ideology and the standard of purity is a tool for exclusion. A revolution based on the ideological preferences of a few is dangerous, first because of the likelihood of its failure. Failed revolutions produce no concrete reforms and can unleash reactionary forces all the same. But a successful revolution based on the ideological preferences of a few at the exclusion of others is dangerous in its own way.
In his chronicle of the Russian Revolution, A People’s Tragedy, historian Orlando Figes describes the proto-revolutionaries in nineteenth century Russia as uncompromising and rigid in their ideology. In the decades leading up to the overthrow of the Romanovs, the revolutionary intelligentsia “saw the people as agents of their abstract doctrines rather than as suffering individuals with their own complex needs and ideals.” They only focused on improving the lives of their fellow Russians so long as that advocacy contributed to their ideological narrative and political ambitions and, even then, their attitude toward the common people didn’t simply oscillate between manipulation and indifference. Figes argues that, in their minds, “the interests of ‘the cause’ sometimes meant that the people’s conditions had to deteriorate even further, to bring about the final cataclysm” (128).
It’s in this context that prominent progressive activists employ the language of “revolution.” Celebrity activists like Susan Sarandon, who suggested that the prospect of a Trump presidency was preferable to that of Clinton because it would more quickly bring about the revolution and cause things to ‘really explode,’ are hardly political sophisticates. But that sort of hyperbolic rhetoric is the logical extension of the actions of millions of voters who abstained or voted for a third party candidate because the run-of-the-mill progressive on the ticket didn’t pass ideological muster.
Figes goes on to describe the worldview of the early Marxist revolutionaries in the late nineteenth century as follows:
“Convinced that their own ideas were the key to the future of the world, that the fate of humanity rested on the outcome of their own doctrinal struggle, the Russian intelligentsia divided up the world into the forces of ‘progress’ and ‘reaction,’ friends and enemies of the people’s cause, leaving no room for doubters in between. Here were the origins of the totalitarian worldview.” (127)
Insofar as they can be considered revolutionary at all, the more dogmatic progressives seem uninterested in placing their politics into any larger context; blissfully unaware of the dubious tradition with which they flirt. Condemnations of potential allies as the ‘lesser-of-evils’ because their politics differ or their progressive credentials are smudged by the work of governing fit this larger context with surprising ease. Gleeful anticipation of the collapse of the ‘system,’ and obliviousness to the very real pain that would result in poor and marginalized communities from such a collapse, descends directly from this tradition.
The world needs activists. Radicals. Extremists for their causes. I know that many (probably most) progressive and radical activists put their politics aside for a single hour to cast a ballot when the stakes were high, but a large ‘revolutionary’ subset of progressive voters did not. The focus of politics should be improving lives. When the time comes to protect someone’s rights or make their life better in a concrete way, ideological purity is a piss-poor excuse for a refusal to step up to the plate and one with dark historical precedent.