To explicate a new paradigm of populist leftism, a remembrance of a populist platform during the Russian Revolution that lost power (and then gained power only to lose it again) in the months after the October Revolution seems appropriate. Today marks the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution. It’s important to note that liberalism failed in the months that followed the February Revolution and culminated in leftist revolutionaries led by Bolshevik Party leader Vladimir Lenin executing a nearly bloodless coup d’état against Alexander Kerensky’s Provisional Government on Oct. 25, 1917 ( November 7, N.S.); thereby seizing the day for the Petrograd Soviet, which up to that point served as an alternate source of authority or dual power to the Provisional Government formed after Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne in March of 1917.
After the February Revolution of 1917, Kerensky joined the newly formed Russian Provisional Government, first as Minister of Justice, then as Minister of War and after July 1917 as the government’s second Minister-Chairman. He served as leader of the Trudovik Party and was a leader of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (PSR). Kerensky along with other leading members of PSR (Pavel Pereverzev and Victor Chernov) who held positions of power within the Provisional Government didn’t believe that that Petrograd Soviet should assume power at a time when contradiction did not function as the status quo.
But the masses in Russia were becoming disillusioned with the meager responses that the Provisional Government made to the most immediate of social and economic problems. The factories still functioned as sites of oppression, the military and economy were exhausted from a grueling engagement with the Central Powers and the peasantry was still enslaved through the landed proprietorship of private estates. And the July Days (July 16-17) demonstrated just how revolutionary the masses were in Petrograd and how reactionary the Provisional Government was (they ordered an armed attack against the demonstrators, which killed hundreds). Given these circumstances, it is clear why the coup d’état succeeded with very little bloodshed because it became clear to nearly all actors in this particular political stage that the Petrograd Soviet needed to establish power beyond that of the Provisional Government to ensure that mass mobilization in February was actually meaningful. Several moderate socialists within the Provisional Government even proposed programs of reform to Kerensky the evening before the coup but it was too late. The Petrograd Soviet ensured that a socialist government emerged in Russia.
According to Marxist theory, a liberal government is most productive after an aristocracy fails and yet socialism emerged as the most competent remedy to the unrest of the masses. The Bolsheviks responded the appropriate and necessary way to the ineffective and potentially authoritarian Provisional Government under the leadership of Kerensky and his ilk. (The Bolsheviks will not be commended beyond the importance of their coup because they had authoritarian goals and established an authoritarian state.) But the PSR to which he held a position of power must not be conflated with Kerensky. At least three distinct political groupings existed within the PSR by end of summer 1917 and Kerensky was of the nationalist proclivity. Kerensky supported the strain of a war with the Central Powers during system change and his organization along with the Menshevik Social-Democrats (Menshevik SDs) became known as “defensists.” Chernov, who was an important theorist during the party’s formative years, desired an end to the war and proposed peace through cooperation with socialist parties in both military blocs. But there existed a younger crowd within the PSR that did not just pay homage to the origin of the party in the Narodnik movement with ideology (the noted movement perceived the village commune as the embryo of socialism and they organized people and informed them of the darkness of feudalism and fought for an end of capitalism because it served no purpose in an agrarian country. They also sought to resolve these very social conflicts through the mobilization of the peasantry). This third group became known as the Party of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries (PLSR) after they split from the PSR. And while they faltered shortly after they gained more power than the Bolsheviks who failed with the peasantry in the summer after the October Revolution and ultimately helped establish the Bolsheviks as a party capable of authoritarian rule like Kerensky, soviet power without the contribution of the PSR (and the PLSR) very well might have waned quickly.
When the PSLR protected, provided and organized for the peasants there was some semblance of a non-oppressive socialism in Russia. And for that reason, the Narodnik movement and its effects on the early platform of the PSR and the platform of PLSR will be explored and promoted as a framework of populist leftism that provided semblance to participatory democracy like that of the EZLN and held power like that of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela in the early years of Hugo Chavez’s rule in Venezuela. This will demonstrate that the PLSR had both the spirit and the material power to further a non-oppressive state but the tragedy exists in that their belief in the people faltered because they started to articulate the peasant proletariat as an object and they became distracted with a desire for an international spread of socialism. After this, the Rojava Revolution will be introduced as a contemporary example of this material and spiritual power that provides both direct democracy and intersectionality. This exploration will culminate in the articulation of a new populist left paradigm.
Narodnism arose after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 under Tsar Alexander II, Russia’s most liberal Tsar, who signaled the end of feudalism in Russia. But because Alexander’s rule, like the rule of his Romanov forbearers, was veiled in the ideology of divine right he held power over war and peace, crime and punishment, the army, ministerial appointments and all other aspects of the state. The peasants overwhelmingly idolized Alexander II as someone who supported their struggles and they were indeed influenced by the ideology of divine appointment and engaged in a particular kind of alienation from reality where human creations are misconceived as objects: in this case a result of cosmic law. The Tsardom of Russia knew that it bled just like everyone and so when the Narodniks started to encourage revolutionary sympathy from the peasantry in 1874, they—along with many peasants—were imprisoned and executed. In June 1879 in the forests near Lipetsk, the Narodniks responded to this oppression with the creation of a terrorist group called the People’s Will and reached a verdict that regicide was the necessary action to establish reform for social and economic justice. They believed in a theory known as direct struggle in which continuous, uninterrupted violent contradiction of the state would break the government’s back and lift the revolutionary spirit of the people.
On Sunday, March 13, 1881, People’s Will succeeded with the assassination of Alexander II. The back of the government did not break and in fact, the back of People’s Will was broken through execution and imprisonment. State repression increased and all of the internal reforms of the succeeding tsar, Alexander III, aimed to reverse the liberalization that had occurred during his father’s reign. He believed that the triad of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality” (Official Nationality that was anti-Semitic) would end contradiction. But he did not understand that since the triad served as the statewide political ideology of his grandfather, Nicholas I, the ideology technology that spread to managers through the education apparatus and then to students who used the rhetoric in factories in a previous cycle of economic reproduction, little persuasive power existed and in the late 19th century a conservative Russia was a Russia that reified what prevented its transition to modernity.
But with a struggle against the state comes the burden that repression will crash down when it feels heavy enough contradiction. Revolutionaries all over the West were none the less encouraged by the efforts of People’s Will. Johan Most, a writer for the German periodical Freiheit, wrote, “One of the most abominable tyrants of Europe… is no more…” Most continued by noting that the news of his death “plunged into princely palaces around the world… like a thunderbolt… Truly it may happen again here [in Germany].”
On the turn of the 20th century, with Russia under the helm of Tsar Nicholas II, increasing numbers of former members of People’s Will were released from prison and exile (Mark Natanson, an important influence in the PLSR split from the PSR, is one such example) and it followed that veteran revolutionaries like Chernov who founded the Party of Socialist-Revolutionaries in 1897 (different from the Socialist Revolutionary Party or PSR) called the “Southern Party” and Andrei Argunov of People’s Will who founded Union of Socialist-Revolutionaries or “Northern Union” merged their organizations to form a unified Party of Socialist-Revolutionaries (PSR) in the course of 1901 which revived many of the goals and methods of the former Narodnik movement, including peasant revolution and terror. Prior to 1917, the PSR was the most powerful and influential political organization organizing in opposition to the state.
To indicate how the PSR remained powerful and furthered their power in the 20th century, agrarian, peasant Russia in the first year of the century some eighty miles from Moscow, “people [still] lived in wooden huts thatched with straw…. The stoves were great erections of clay, upon which some of the family slept… [Though] the general sleeping place was the floor, on straw… For a long time there was only one cloth coat in the village: it was borrowed by friends for special occasions… Meat was a rarity. The rye-bread was supplemented by barley soup and barley porridge.” It is not surprising then that starting in 1902, peasants through the influence of the PSR going to the people, not education, but the encouragement of the people to organize for revolutionary activity, peasants began protesting in southern and central Russia. And in 1904, through the aid of a few liberal zemstvo organizations (systems of elected councils established in tsarist Russia to administer local affairs after the abolition of serfdom), there came a call for the equal status of the peasantry, civil freedoms and a representative legislative body. Peasant contradiction with the support of liberalism became powerful and in 1905 enough power was consolidated that the PSR was able to broaden their appeal in order to attract the rapidly growing urban workforce to their traditionally peasant-oriented program. Hundreds of thousands of workers in industrial centers around the empire went on strike. Terrorist action re-emerged, which resulted in the assassination of several imperial figures like Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich in February. Direct Struggle returned as a force to shake the tsarist regime and in the same month of the assassination of the Grand Duke, the tsar agreed to consider proposals for a State Duma to participate in government and law-making. By October the strike movement culminated in a general strike that shut down most economic activity in St. Petersburg. The tsar agreed to a more expansive set of reforms and the creation of a representative legislative State Duma (when he signed a document called the October Manifesto) after his calls for military repression were ignored by soldiers and sailors who too wanted reform.
The Duma period, which spanned from 1906-1914 enabled both the far left PSR and the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), which ultimately split into the minority Mensheviks and Lenin’s majority, Bolsheviks, governmental participation that appeared respectful of the idea of democracy for only the first two of the four Dumas (the PSR only participated in the second Duma). But this initial respect was dissolved along with the potential for the radical left to influence the Duma after the PSR and the Bolsheviks proved uncontrollable and unwavering on reform demands during the second Duma. In the final two Dumas, the state made oppressive moves that reduced the representation of peasants and national minorities and insured that the gentry chose half the electors. But in the second Duma, the far left competed with the Kadets (liberals of the Constitutional Democratic Party) who believed that while reform was needed it could not be done through violence and the newly created party of the Octobrists who believed the concessions were enough. Further, while the power of the soviets grew, direct struggle beyond encouraging revolutionary agitation in the peasantry and workers in the factories proved controllable by the state in the first full year of the State Duma in 1906 into 1907. Public attitudes against terrorism shifted to the center, which enabled the far right Union of the Russian People to form a reactionary and nationalist platform. The police also tolerated racist gangs known as the Black Hundreds. And while Imperial Russia experienced a series of changes to the agricultural sector from policy instituted during the tenure of Pyotr Stolypin because of recommendations from a committee known as the “Needs of Agricultural Industry Special Conference”— which was held in Russia between 1901–1903 and argued for unconditional right of individual landownership— given the economic strain and recovery from war with Japan and what that meant for an agrarian country attempting to compete internationally with other countries, the empire was much less industrially developed and modernized than other states right before the start of World War I. The poorest peasants were in desperate conditions – landlessness and destitution plagued the country; despite the flourishing Silver Age of Russian Imperial Culture and the musings of Anton Chekov.
In 1905 the PSR drafted a political manifesto, outlining around seven socio-political objectives and seven economic and agricultural objectives. The socio-political objectives include:
- The establishment of a democratic republic with broad autonomy for oblasts and communes, both urban and rural.
- Increased acceptance of federal principles in relations between various nationalities, granting them the unconditional right to self-determination.
- Direct, secret, equal and universal right to vote for every citizen above 20 years of age regardless of sex, religion or national origin.
- Proportional representation; direct popular legislation (referenda and initiatives); election, removability at all times and accountability of all officials.
- Complete freedom of conscience, speech, press, meetings, strikes and unions… complete and general civil equality inviolability of the individual and home… complete separation of the church from the state and a declaration that religion is a private affair for every individual.
- The introduction of a compulsory, general public education at government expense; equality of languages.
- Abolition of permanent armies and their replacement by a people’s militia.
The economic and agricultural policies include:
- A reduction of the working time in order to relieve surplus labor.
- Establishment of a legal maximum of working time based on norms determined by health conditions (an eight-hour working norm for most branches of industry as soon as possible, and lower norms for work which is dangerous or harmful to health).
- Establishment of a minimum wage in agreement between administration and labor unions.
- Complete government insurance (for accident, unemployment, sickness, old age and so on), administered by the insured at the expense of the state and employers.
- Legislative protection of labor in all branches of industry and trade, in accordance with the health conditions supervised by factory inspection commissions elected by workers (normal working conditions, hygienic conditions of buildings; prohibition of work for youngsters below sixteen years of age, limitation of work for youngsters, prohibition of female and child labor in some branches of industry and during specified periods, adequate and uninterrupted Sunday rest and so forth).
- Professional organization of workers and their increased participation in determining internal rules in industrial enterprises.
- Socialization of all privately owned lands; that is, their transfer from private property of individual owners to public domain and administration by democratically organized communes and territorial associations of communes on the basis of equalized utilization.
The state provided none of the socio-political reforms in total. The same went for the economic and agricultural reforms. The Dumas did provide some important legislation for public education, labor safety, social insurance, and more liberal based economic and fiscal policies. But the inklings of democracy was not satisfactory and with brief gains squashed by economic woes intensified by state investment in the war against the Central Powers, the people wanted more and they did not want their interests to lose to the war effort. (The PSR divide between opposition to the war or nationalistic support of the war functioned as the linchpin in the emergence of the PLSR from the whole after the February Revolution in 1917.) There is an interesting phenomenon of emigration (in avoidance of forced exile and arrest) from leaders of the PSR from 1914 to just before the February Revolution 1917 and this is important because whether they supported the war effort or not they supplied the ideology and programs and organizational center that PSR leaders in Russia used to shape the course of the revolution: arrests of leaders did result in considerably slowing down revolutionary activity in Russia. The Dumas were at best seen as liberal policies of gradual reform and at worst, condescending paper tigers, and very soon after the beginning of the war the left-leaning PSR activists of primarily working origin begin to transform again the public attitude against violent contradiction. Workers and students became increasingly more deprived as the war machine developed and direct struggle became a more accepted solution: and a more achievable solution because the state itself appeared very weak. At first came tame actions like rebuilding underground cells, creating conspiratorial party conferences, printing and distributing anti-war leaflets, but then came the organization of strikes (particularly in workshops and factories that produced ammunition) and mass meetings, open opposition to the government-sponsored election of workers’ groups in the War-Industries committee, and then came actions like distributing PSR literature to Russian prisoners of war, the encouragement of desertion from the Russian military officers and soldiers who were PSR and military personnel who were not, terrorist acts against bureaucrats and expropriation of large industrial concerns and banks. The party’s real platform could not be completed until the end of the war. Right-leaning PSR activity advanced by leaders like Kerensky was in general supportive of the war effort and believed that effort needed to be focused on the revolutionary overthrow of tsarism, which he believed was made vulnerable with the economic drain of the war machine. But by November 1915 at the Socialist Revolutionary Petrograd Committee (SRPC), which fulfilled central committee functions, the PSRs opted to adhere to the anti-war agreement which Natanson signed at the September Zimmerwald Conference: the left-leaning PSRs had their say to Kerensky’s chagrin because he created the SRPC.
Unlike the Bolsheviks who adhered to the doctrine of democratic centralism, a method of leadership in which political decisions reached by the party (through its democratically elected bodies) are binding upon all members of the party, the SRs with at least three distinct political groupings were normally very disorganized and in regular disagreement. But in December the SRPC issued a proclamation vetted and approved both abroad and within the state that factional differences needed to take a back seat so that difference in complete unity could flourish. They even called for combined socialism with the Bolsheviks and the Menshevik SDs. Overcoming interparty socialist ideological difference was ironically one of the PSRs historical strengths and to aid the new socialist bloc in perfecting anti-war propaganda, promoting class warfare and preparing peasants and factory workers for the “revolutionary overthrow,” the PSR suggested that socialists create ongoing joint committees to enhance cooperation. They also suggested joint organs for provincial towns; outside of Moscow these organs already existed and cooperation between socialist and anarchist groups reigned: the provinces were the originators of this idea but their impact received a boost from the PSRs. By spring and summer of 1916 with the aid of the new socialist bloc, the SRPC helped establish and further a network of anti-imperialist revolutionary groups and sympathizers but the Okhrana (The Department for Protecting the Public Security and Order created to protect the Russian autocracy after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II) found the tone of the propaganda in those seasons threatening and they effectively destroyed the SRPC (the same happened to the Petrograd Bolsheviks).
But large PSR organizations existed in the emigration and in Petrograd and in Moscow. To discuss the organizational communication style that the PSR practiced during the reign of the SRPC proves interesting in that it demonstrates intraparty strain but interparty diffusion skills. They were the architects of an important revolutionary bio-network but the SRPC did not practice empathetic care on the internationalist decision in opposition to Kerensky and because he felt upstaged he did not revive the organization that he created. This lesson is relevant to organizations in general but of utmost importance to organizers and revolutionaries exchanging ideas and vying to further different platforms. Empathetic care can exist in the acknowledgment of the importance of the democratically avoided idea that an organization member extends and it can be remedied through organizational retreats (of course the latter remedy is untenable during revolutionary times). In modern times nonpartisan but non-neutral networks like United We Dream and many organizations that utilize Antifa action have both strong inter-organizational relations and strong intra-organizational relations because of the very fact that group ends are based on social justice. This is why the PSRs were successful in facilitating the creation of joint committees and creating organs because their historical devotion to the peasants is innately empathetic in its appeal to a neutral space of the people, which fulfills a vision of both Kropotkin and Marx (though the SRs were often devotees to Herzen rather than the two noted scholars). The appeal to the “people” is persuasive in ways that appealing to system and structural changes is not.
The PSRs did maintain enough intraparty agreement during the second half of 1916 to begin to recover and show resolve against Okhrana state violence. Cities across the country such as Kharkov, Smolensk, Ekaterinoslov, Nikolaev, Krasnoyarsk and Baku experienced an intensification of agitation and the bonds of imperial society began to snap due to social and economic pressures but the PSR needed to reestablish power after the SRPC, district committees and other initiative groups were swept away in Petrograd. Nikolai Sviatitskii, a left-centrist, and Petr Alexandrovich, an internationalist, were some of the few leaders who were able to develop a new agenda for the PSR in Petrograd but the former demonstrated his right leanings by opposing slogans for a new committee that seemed oppositional to patriotism (“Defeat of one’s own government” is one example) and Alexandrovitch believed in a committee composed mainly workers and Sviatitskii believed that intelligentsia would be more influential and more organized in agitating the public than workers would. He argued that workers’ cells in the past often required extensive organizational and ideological guidance and he also noted the impressive number of provocateurs in worker cells and so Alexandrovich was persuaded. But the intelligentsia proved unhelpful in the construction of a Petrograd Committee: most considered the final push to collapsing the imperial regime too soon. Alexandrovich then created an unofficial committee of workers who fulfilled some of the functions of a city committee. The tension between left and right-leaning members of the PSR increased.
Contradiction did increase in the last months of the year in the form of economic strikes. And economic and political strikes merged into a single phenomenon in January and February 1917 when strikes reached a sustained high level. But spies, state violence and moderate and centrist preoccupation (which included right-leaning PSRs) with the reopening of the fourth Duma on February 14 stood in the way of the overall PSR movement. Right or left, the PSRs all wanted revolution but the right wanted to create a government that could better defend the country and the left wanted to encourage the international spread of socialism, which they believed would be incompatible with war. The left, however, was forced to maintain intraparty agreement because the State Duma provided access to important liberals who were sympathetic to a coup and therefore the Duma served as a point of materializing system change by means of persuading members of the parliament to agree to it. The War Industry Committees workers’ groups were agitated because of government oppression and this enabled defensist PSR leaders to call for strikes on the opening of the Duma. Interestingly, Bolsheviks unsuccessfully encouraged workers to strike on February 10 and then on February 13 but the PSRs were successful in garnering strike turnout. They successfully managed the exigence of the Duma opening. But the Left Mensheviks managed to influence a gradualist but not powerless outcome of the February 14 unrest in their favor, a radical bourgeois one, where 80,000 workers went on strike but were dispersed in a way that achieved neither the left-leaning direct struggle nor the right-leaning desire of Duma interaction. The people were made even more restless. But this provided evidence of how quickly bodies in protest could be formed.
The economy began to rapidly decline after the February 14 action and it became clear to the soviets that system change was now an inevitability. The question was, of course, what system exactly. Revolutionary leaders and activists prepared for the upcoming 23 February International Women’s Day. This was a traditional day of socialist activity but the celebration ran together into a direct struggle that could not be stopped. It was severely predicated by the munitions factory Putilov Works that locked the gates to thirty thousand workers like it did the year before in opposition to strikers. But the energy and numbers behind contradiction were different this year. Large columns of workers all across Petrograd formed and neither the police nor the Cossacks could stop them. The strike did not achieve a general effect but the Cossacks became antipathetic to opposing the contradiction meaning the empire was left to the police. February 24 was similar except with a larger turnout and it demonstrated the power of the Mezhraionka, who were members of a small independent faction of the RSDLP (they existed in an intermediate ideological position between the rival Menshevik and Bolshevik wings of the divided RSDLP and they wanted union between the divided powers) who utilized a seized printing plant to produce leaflets encouraging the people to engage in revolutionary action not adherence to the Duma. The people did as the flyer encouraged. February 25 saw growing apathy in military opposition to disperse the growing crowds, the Bolshevik and Mezhraionka call for a general strike, PSR leadership of strikes and the anarchists’ destruction of government property. On the 26th the PSR acted with the Mezhraionka and their seized printing plant and produced leaflets for the soldiers to not interfere and for the workers to ignore the government and continue the strike. The workers did not need much coaxing but the soldiers initially obeyed orders and fired and killed strikers. But later in the evening, they revolted against their command (likely due to PSR involvement in the military: service in the military was a punishment and in the military PSR soldiers and officers helped establish politically conscious units in all of the Petersburg garrisons).
That night the All-Socialist Informational Bureau met to discuss the formation of the new government. There was disagreement between the left and right socialists. The Mezhraionka again called upon the soldiers to disobey orders but this time in an armed uprising against the state and they also called out the platform of the right socialists.
In response, the right socialists produced a leaflet calling soviet deputies to serve as representatives of a governmental apparatus at the Tauride Palace that would transform into the Provisional Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet. This self-designated Soviet was granted ethos by specifically addressing workers to send deputies to the palace. The left socialists responded with a leaflet calling for soviet deputies to meet at Finland Station. But the rhetoric the left socialists used lacked acknowledgment of the Soviet and the location was moribund to the viable and central positionality of the palace. The left-leaning PSR and other left socialists needed to comply or lose power on the Provisional Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet. Whether the people were rooted in left socialism or not— the masses were not and the general and human population required leaders. The soviet deputies granted control of the military to the liberal-oriented Provisional Government.
On the 28th the left tried to defeat the measure that created the Provisional Government but they were encouraged to comply. Union of Socialists Revolutionaries Maximalists M.M. Engelgard (Alexandrovich), a political party expelled from the PSR in 1906 and I. Iurenev from the Mezhraionka urged the soviet deputies to take power into their own hands and obey only the deputies representing the Soviet of Workers’. The military was openly hostile to this idea.
The revolution then became chained to the more influential right-leaning PSRs who enabled the left-leaning PSRs access to the Provisional government and were more popular with the entirety of the Russian population (excluding radical workers and students), which enabled at the very least an exerting power over the other left socialists. Despite how greatly splintered the relations between the less powerful left-leaning PSR and the more powerful right-leaning PSR, the former fell into line with the later. (At this point in time, the Petrograd Bolsheviks were in no position to lead the masses.)
But circumstances noted towards the beginning of this piece like July days made it almost impossible for peaceful intraparty relations between the left-leaning PSR and the right-leaning members; though the left did encourage a reshuffling of the Provisional Government on July 24 (August 6, N.S.) as a consequence of popular agitation and the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers ‘and Soldiers’ Deputies (June 16 – July 7, 1917) where the left-leaning PSR really made clear their dissatisfaction with the Provisional Government. Unfortunately for the soviets, Kerensky was still at the helm of the Provisional Government and the socio-economic problems that burdened Russia were not being transformed. The PSR functioned as populists by ideology only. Chernov still served as the head of the PSR but his moderate stance between the left-leaning and right-leaning PSR made it clear that the peasantry was not being cared for with the liberal right of the party leading the country; especially since the intelligentsia lost many of their connections to peasant leaders.
The Bolsheviks after the February Revolution lost power and influence but they were not constrained in the ways the left-leaning PSR was and they utilized their influence with the Red Guards, the workers’ militias who were of a left-socialist proclivity, to successfully install a socialist government after the success of the October Revolution. The PSR movement did not disperse after the revolution but an official split occurred between the left-leaning and right-leaning PSR during the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets; thereby establishing the Left Socialist Revolutionary (PLSR). This congress ratified the revolutionary transfer of state power to the 649 soviets elected through 318 soviet deputies. The Bolsheviks received the majority and the PLSR fared better than the PSR and the Mensheviks. The representatives of these latter two branches walked out. The PLSR and the Bolsheviks became coalition partners.
The PLSR was no more unified than the historic PSR during 1914-1917. There were radicals like Maria Spiridonova who approved of the October Revolution and there were moderates like Chernov who were quite opposed. But as a whole, the PLSR opposed the power of the executive or the Sovnarkom (Council of People’s Commissars) because while the All-Russian Congress of Soviets existed as the legislative, in periods between its sessions its powers were passed to the VTsIK or All-Russian Central Executive Committee, which was distinctly under Bolshevik control. The PLSR ensured that the Sovnarkom was “responsible” in front of the VTsIK by including representatives of the Extraordinary All-Russia Congress Of Soviets Of Peasants’ Deputies within the out of session legislative. Ordinances of major political import approved through the VTsIK also needed to later be ratified by the All-Russian Congress of Soviets. The radical PLSR was also still deeply concerned with the international issue and they were much more idealistic than the Bolsheviks with the belief that the peasants would only reach true emancipation through Russian workers and workers of the world. There was also an initial split on the Russian Constituent Assembly that functioned as means of stabilizing opposition to the end of the Provincial Government. The PLSR moderates viewed a constituent assembly as something that sustaining the non-oppressive diverse political views that sustained the revolution. The Bolsheviks found the idea of a constitution limiting and viewed it as a device used by class enemies to appropriate as right what may function as oppression. The PLSR ultimately did agree with the more radical Prosh Prosh’ian who opposed the Russian Constituent Assembly and stated that “real life is more intransigent than political dogma. Its logic is more merciless, and saner, than that of any political program.”
Despite ideological differences on how a socialist state should function both the PLSR peasant platform and their engagements with the peasantry made it clear to the Bolsheviks that they needed populism to address the peasant proletariat: proletariat policy would not cut it. Lenin’s December 13th “Decree on Land” (formally approved in the Third All-Russian Congress of Soviets during January 23–31) while a thoughtful socialist program in that it abolished land proprietorship, none the less lacked populist logic and ethos. The PLSR through their active organizing of the farming class produced on February 18 “The “Fundamental Law of Land Socialization.” The law severed land from all but those who actually used it to grow. This law was contradictory to the Marxist doctrine that different classes of the peasantry are at odds with each other; further, it was effectively contradictory because throughout the spring of 1918 a massive egalitarian redistribution of land largely unfought by differing structures of the peasant relation of production was facilitated through the PLSR. Calling into question the reasoning behind Bolshevik persecution of the kulaks (rich peasants) during this period.
The peasantry appreciated the logic of land socialization over Bolshevik nationalization (soviet/state control) but the PLSR started to become disenchanted with the peasantry. This was predicated by Stolypin’s land reforms where economic divisions were visible in the villages but Spiridonova believed that a peasant congress would not be well for “Soviet power.” (The Bolshevization of the PLSR started to develop.)
By April 1918 this apathy was concomitant to the PLSR submitting to the increase in oppressions by the Bolsheviks on trade union freedoms and ending factory worker councils. Of course the PLSR did have considerably less governmental power and they did oppose the peace conditions offered by Germany and the signage of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on 3 March 1918 (formally approved during the Fourth All-Russian Congress of Soviets from March 14–16), which enabled German imperialism through Russia’s renouncement of territorial claims in Finland (which it had already acknowledged), Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), Belarus, and Ukraine, the relational acquisition of the majority of Russia’s coal economy and occupation of western Russia. The PLSR did ultimately prioritize their internationalist belief over influence in the Sovnarkom by renouncing their delegation in protest of the treaty and walking out of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets. This action exposes the structural weakness of the PLSR who had a populist platform but international devotion.
This is when populism becomes quixotic and ineffectual. An oppressive peace was opposed despite the fact that invasion from the Germany was very possible on February 18-19 given that a German fleet approached the Gulf of Finland and Russia’s capital Petrograd in response to Trotsky’s decision to end negotiations. Beyond the international issue, the more radical left of the PLSR became lost in the same fetishization of national economic control and Spiridonova began to believe that the kulaks were antagonists to the socialization of land (though she thought that removing them would make the peasants powerless). Peasants became objects that lacked the quality of a revolutionary dichotomy. They were viewed as saviors when she noted that “if Soviet Russia is to be saved, it will saved solely by the peasants…”
Despite these contradictory perspectives existing in Moscow, the organizers who interacted with the peasants knew that they were strongly opposed to Bolshevik agrarian policy. The downfall came to the PLSR when they decided to stop the Bolshevik requisitioning squads from forcing peasant solidarity rather than addressing the ideology that encouraged the Bolsheviks to perform outside the guidelines of local Soviets. The overdetermined nature of stopping specific oppressive circumstances rather than persuading in formal government deals with the moral prioritization of the leaders of the PSLR as opposed to the peasants’ the PLSRs depended upon. When populism responds with what is right for the people, rather than what the people want, the people become chained. This is why the response to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk through the assassination of Wilhelm Graf von Mirbach-Harff (he participated in the Russian-German negotiations in Brest-Litovsk from December 1917 to March 1918 and was appointed German ambassador to Russia in April 1918) in July 1918 following the PLSRs unsuccessful first days of the Fifth All-Russian Congress of Soviets (July 4–10) is a moral move not one rooted in political realism because in the focus of internationalism distinct objects of countries are articulated as the people: And with PLSR logic, these people can only be saved from the less powerful arm of a newly fledged socialist state.
During the first two days of the Fifth All-Russian Congress of Soviets, the PLSR who had only 352 delegates compared to 745 Bolsheviks out of 1132 total raised disagreements on the suppression of rival parties, the death penalty and mainly, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. There was very little they could do—except to continue to gain power through the popular support they amassed in the previous months. But instead, they frittered it away through an assassination that pushed Russia to the brink of war and was also militarily unpopular. They were barred from participation in the Congress of Soviets on the very day of the assignation. In retaliation, the PLSR Uprising occurred but it was crushed the next day and resulted in the splintering of the PLSR into the “Party of the Populists-Communists” and “Party of Revolutionary Communism.” The uprising also provided fuel for Red Terror policies (given that the Russian Civil War was ongoing from after the October Revolution to October 1922).
The PLSR collapse demonstrates a condition that often occurs when populism achieves state power (or subdued state power) after establishing hegemony through the common people: a condition of intervention without a true reality check into where the people actually are and what it is that they want. But before moving on to a modern example of this danger, it is important to note the diverse wheelhouse of praxis and diplomatic skills that the Narodnik movement, PSR and PLSR either provided as originators or helped to popularize. The Narodniks from 1874 went to the people and discussed with them the alienation from reality that might occur when human creations (the position of tsar or the American Dream) are misconceived as objects: in the case of the former, a result of cosmic law; for the latter, a result of what is provided through a constitution and representative democracy. They provided a theory known as direct struggle, which argued that continuous, uninterrupted violent contradiction of the state would break the government’s back and lift the revolutionary spirit of the people. And on Sunday, March 13, 1881, the Narodnik group People’s Will successfully succeeded with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, which noticeably stirred contradiction efforts both in Russia and in Germany. Imperial oppression after the fact encouraged Narodniks to create underground cells while simultaneously providing a political platform and movement palatable to non-radicals in the form of the PSR. The PSR created conspiratorial party conferences, provided diverse anti-war praxis in the form of anti-war strikes (particularly in workshops and factories that produced ammunition) and mass meetings, open opposition to the government-sponsored election of workers’ groups in the War-Industries committee, the distribution of PSR literature to Russian prisoners of war, the encouragement of desertion from the Russian military those members who were PSR and military personnel who were not, terrorist acts against bureaucrats and expropriation of large industrial concerns and banks. Their call for difference in unity through a combined socialism with the Bolsheviks and the Menshevik SDs enabled organizers to overcome interparty socialist ideological difference and was ironically one of the ideologically contentious PSR’s historical strengths and they promoted joint committees and joint organs for provincial towns. The PLSR was concerned with the psychology of the people and were able to grant the peasantry ownership of their land through the passage of the “Fundamental Law of Land Socialization.” And they were able to put a stop to Bolshevik forays into their own political and social stronghold on a ground level.
When the wheelhouse of praxis and diplomatic skills that the Narodnik movement, PSR and PLSR provided for their communities is considered with the reality that was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and how populism informed Marxism-Leninism, Trotskyism, the Frankfurt School and cultural Marxism (which provided ideas for post-imperial studies, different types of feminisms, and the inklings of intersectionality), etc., it is clear how populism helped define the early twentieth century. But given that the huge gain of intersectionality has been harnessed on a political level by the left and class can be articulated as an aspect of identity following Joan Williams or as a banner that all oppressed identities can carry to help foster difference in unity to form a hegemony against oppressors and organizations that are not universally accepted by the liberal elite such as operations that utilize Antifa action and those that contradict through destruction how is power beyond protest (which is increasingly ineffectual in a twenty-first century world with advanced police forces and armies, surveillance (wiretappings and recordings and drones)) and strikes going to be consolidated to dismantle the elite in a way that will enable people to become that which they want to become? Certainly not through the Saul Alinsky model as it directly advocates ideological serfdom (and interestingly promotes the cloak and dagger actions that the Bolsheviks used against other parties during the span of Red Terror) of the people to the organizers devotion to picking a target, freezing it, personalizing it, and polarizing it when the target is in fact the state (the United States of America); further, both Barrack Obama and Hillary Clinton used these tactics to take advantage of people in the neoliberal system. Julia Serano notes that “activists who reverse double standards will claim that such maneuvers are necessary in order to subvert some form of societal [oppression],” and the Alinsky model performs this double standard by advancing an adherence to the failed American democratic tradition and attacking structures or representatives of structures rather than the system itself.
This is a type of alienation from reality that might occur when human creations (the American Dream) are misconceived as objects of the grandiose (per György Lukács’ theory of reification) or abstract terms such as nature, cosmic law, or manifestations of divine will or even some causal collision of the best minds for the task (which a common perspective of the importance of the Founding Fathers). What organizers and the community at large need to do to do to establish more power is realize that the American Dream is false or maybe that it can bleed and die. They need to realize that Donald Trump throwing paper towels at Puerto Ricans is not just a metaphor for foreign policy: it is foreign policy. What this means is that once it is understood that the United States of America is a state of oppression, populism can help navigate the dangerous terrain of the necessary contradiction that can seize the day. Bernie Sanders must be commended as his grass-roots, progressive-populism reinvigorated discussions of class as an aspect of identity or intersectional class politics and while his economic platform may have been a fantasy given the economic control of the elite, he appealed to society at large, and as Marx wrote, he set the stage for the “enlightenment of the working class” by “attacking every principle of existing society.” (To fail to at least note the emergence of U.S. populism through the People’s Party that was a major left-wing force during 1892-1896 and was highly critical of capitalism and allied itself with the labor movement would undermine the reality that populist leftism has been successful in the U.S.; but given that this party had a considerable devotion to white supremacy it has little relevance to the new populist left paradigm.)
But Marx can only serve to critique contemporary times and Herzen must be championed as a guide because before the chains of slavery can be broken, “the obtuseness of the government and the underdevelopment of the people” must be understood as realities. After all, the American dream is still believed in. For example, Alexander II was killed by People’s Will and yet he was the most liberal of all the tsars. Why is that the case? Another question might answer this: Why does an elk charge a hunter who puts down the gun? Herzen helps answer this question by writing in “Five Years Later” that, “Be assured there is nothing to expect from the government. Without the Achilles heel for reason, engaged in the preservation of old rituals and official uniforms, satisfied with magnificent robes and material power, it will sometimes, under the influence of the current flow of ideas, convulsively extend its hand to progress, and every time will take fright halfway there…” And so furthering Mudde and March, left-wing populism will be argued as a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, “the oppressed people who are willing to challenge their ideological limitations” versus “the oppressors unwilling to challenge their ideological limitations,” and this ideology argues that politics should be an expression of the non-oppressive general will of the people. And populist leftism (and for the most part left populism) now will be addressed within its failures and successes during the modern era; ultimately this will lead the way to a new paradigm that in many ways is in the developmental stages by the oppressed people in the United States of America (members of the International Workers of the World) and has been provided—albeit in a different socio-economic capacity by the Narodnik movement. This new paradigm will enable us to “be off on our own!” as Herzen argues. This paradigm requires shaking off the chains of ideological serfdom to nourish our political body plural to truly become that which we want to become.
Because populism is a thin-centered ideology, populism can exist on both the left and the right, but it is never neither. There is no moderation about populism. Populist leftism or rather, a new paradigm for it, maintains the same ethos of anti-elitism, empowerment, inclusiveness and welfarism of populist leftism throughout history but with the understanding that direct democracy is necessary to prevent authoritarian rule. Vanguardism serves its purpose during a revolution but once the day is seized, the sense of the leftist people must rule. (Though the consciousness of the left would be wise to be informed on matters of morality such as loyalty and maintaining party line from the right.) A new paradigm of populist leftism would also be wise to play down Marxist ideological purity and never simply situate itself as the vanguard of the proletariat. Low-income farm workers in the United States and Mexico (and elsewhere) are still relegated to conditions that resemble the oppression of the peasantry in Russia during the Tsardom (and during the USSR) with forced labor, trafficking, withheld wages, threats of violence (including sexual violence) and imprisonment, threats of deportation, and so it is not the case that the working class exhausts the term “oppressed people.”
The PLSR’s concern with the oppressive way the Bolsheviks addressed the peasantry is a historical example as to why Marxism must be downplayed in a new populist left paradigm (because Marxism and Marxist-Leninism fails to grasp the complexity of both the peasant proletariat and the lumpenproletariat) but within the last twenty years, parties such as the Dutch Socialist Party (SP), the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), and German Left Party (PDS) have all articulated similar themes. It is, of course, important to distinguish between populist leftists and left populism because the former is inadequate for the paradigm that is being championed. While the former does consistently present ceaseless revolution as a strategy for the people to become that which they long to become, the accomplishment is generally reduced by the people pursuing ends desired by charismatic leaders.
Left-populist parties often emerge behind a prominent leader, combine left-wing slogans with amorphous ideology, and often emerge as a response to the failure of the establishment. In Europe, the Lithuanian Labor Party of Lithuania, Direction-Social Democracy of Slovakia, and the Motherland bloc, (which utilized both protest populism and identity populism) all challenged the status quo by their meteoric rises—and all three parties— utilized slogans and cult of personality to exploit audiences without concern for ideological consistency. Cult of personality populism or left-populism in Latin America has capitalized on the decline of oligarchy since the early twentieth century as well as increased enfranchisement, which has encouraged the mobilization of excluded social strata, a clear positive dimension of left-populism. But Latin American left-populism which has responded to the political crisis of the loss of power of the established order and proven successful at addressing the crisis (at least immediately) combines charismatic leadership with de-institutionalization while still maintaining a representative democratic system; thereby creating the atmosphere of a church congregation with authoritarian leadership and passive masses. It is not enough when parties organize around labor (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico) and oppose the socioeconomic organization of the oppressors, which utilizes identity politics to veil economic oppression, when the majority of these leaders who appeal to the people lack “real maneuverability against regional and international economic elites,” as March argues. Hugo Chávez extended the slogan of “Axis of Good” against the “Axis of Evil” led by George W. Bush and oil reserves enabled him to do so. Evo Morales had to tone down his rhetoric because of the reality of the balancing act that occurs when the state nationalizes oil and gas and engages in farm and factory nationalization but reels in other sectors so functional groups in the corporatist system more or less demand a degree of private operation to avoid decline in industry and to maintain production.
Hugo Chávez also put himself in the position of nationalizing companies and now in Venezuela, there is a constant struggle against inflation because of this very false control of the economy. Populism does not always end in authoritarianism, which takes the form of a stubborn and insufficient corporatist system but Venezuela’s collapse is not just because of the exhaustion of a few resources but because democratic institutions withered away and the original foundation of democracy the left-populist leadership hailed as the desire of the people has backed these people into a corner of broken, lost hope.
Countries don’t develop an infrastructure that is a reification of the ballot box when the institutions within the country are unable to affect such immediate change. The economy became a sort of plaything in Chávez’s Venezuela. Large deficits were run because there were short-run gains but a middle-income country without international reserves is not competitively able to be in debt. The consequence of failure involves bailouts from the “Axis of Evil.” Venezuela after all was physical exigence of U.S. imperialism that cemented manifest destiny into an ideological structure with the populace of the latter after it was used to force Great Britain to arbitrate its dispute with Venezuela (becoming known as the Olney Corollary) in 1895 and then through executive legitimization during the Venezuela Boundary Dispute with the Roosevelt Corollary in 1904 establishing the United States as an international police power.
Middle-income countries plainly need to be careful. Cuba fought hard to claim middle-income status through an economic system that seized the means of production from neo-imperial parasites and ultimately engaged in the socialization of various sectors and the nationalization of other sectors. The inklings of private markets are visible within Cuba but its history of being exploited and long fought for extrication from imperialism is a modern example that countries don’t develop from the purely abstract or theory alone. Countries develop programs, policies and institutions. The economy of a state is the macro and massive articulation of operations occurring on a micro level. The combined analogies of imperialism to an oppressor and a failing middle-market country blinded by ideology to a weak body meets when the latter makes claims that make the former’s fist start swinging. A contingency plan of socialization might have salvaged the ethos of left-populism in the country but eventually, when the regime is toppled, liberal reform and statewide accepted oppression of the farming classes will resume to the gain of production of sustaining sectors. And radical leftism will be nothing more than a joke.
All of this is to denounce the idealism of the obvious vanguard that is left-populism but also populist leftism if it is not used truly for the people. The corporatism of Chávez is atrocious given the reality of Venezuela’s middle-income status but the PLSR’s decision to assassinate an imperial representative when simply the condition of Russia demanded communal compliance to the imperial power but also self-restraint and understanding that striking from a position of weakness never spontaneously transforms beyond weakness.
What is needed then after these arguments, is not a left-populism like Chávez but populist leftism that is provided direct state power (direct democracy) after vanguards seize the day. And then a system of advisory from the vanguards to the people. This is not a metaphor for people power. Community would exist as a direct branch of government. This also implies that an economic platform of socialization for a competitive country with intervals or need-based corporatism would provide populist leftism the teeth for the masses to sustain themselves psychologically as well as socially and economically.
Left-populist parties such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain has given a new impulse to the debate on populist leftism in Europe. These parties are maintained by similar sloganeering common to Latin American left-populism but with considerably less power. These parties—and as a whole all of left-populism—are plainly less exclusionary than right-populist parties like Fidesz in Hungary and the National Front in France but there is still exclusion and condemnation. And while the denial of political legitimacy is a legitimate move against clearly or implicitly oppressive parties, determining and delegitimizing classist and xenophobic parties presents an illiberalism that is not consistent with the common leftist paradigm. This means that in the case of the United States, the Republican Party’s Tea Party movement (because of racism) should be delegitimized but the Republican Party should not as a whole be demeaned.
This is, of course, an example of how populist leftism would operate within the established order; rather, if someone like Bernie Sanders seized the presidency and his populism was not a ruse like Donald Trump’s right-populism was in fact a ruse (or rather the neo-liberal structures were too powerful for populism to emerge and unshackle the white working class in exchange for a reinvigorated shackling of non-normate bodies and mind).
But what is needed is a grassroots political party to emerge outside of the established governmental system that utilizes populist leftism and invites and speaks to all crossroads that are not blatantly or implicitly oppressive to mobilization. This political party would unite crossroads of intersectional class-based groups, liberal organizations, dark intersections (anarchist and radical groups) and would attempt to reach the right through class-based discussions. This organization would encourage voting (and would present for office its own candidates), protest, addressing and meeting with politicians and social leaders (civil disobedience will still be part of the repertoire), and it would not discourage underground terrorist organs with active and sleeper cells, hacking, the manipulation of lawmakers by any means necessary and of course democratic (no “lone wolves”) and systematic assassinations.
Influenced by both the YPJ and YPG and the Rojava Revolution this political party – this populist leftist political party, believes that an intersectional democratic and socialist state is an end goal. This community knows how to bite through bone (when actions are wrong) but there exists the belief in transformation under pressure and the belief in the personal will. To provide for the synthesis of society’s internally balanced and harmonious material and ideological culture with that of nature, chaos in terms of permanent revolution would have to be a preferred method of action. Society building must come first with the apparition of independence as the ultimate goal. Independence is, of course, nothing without a meaningful direct democracy.
The Rojava Revolution has a direct democratic system but the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN or The Zapatista Army of National Liberation) in Mexico speak much more to the subaltern low-income or at times peasant farming classes and encourage them—in a post-humanistic way— to fight to escape their oppression. And this proposed party that provides (but is not strictly governed by populist left ideology should use this post-humanistic ideology not to instruct but to present the dark potential for the emptiness that exists in all hearts and can breed corruption when one is alienated from reality with a belief in the American Dream. It is important to provide people the material conditions of empowerment and inform on the basic (not basis) of not what is to be done but what happens when it is not done so that when independence is established in the United States people make productive use of a direct democracy. While I think that gradualism is dangerous, in terms of a revolution, I believe this potential party can learn first from the Russian PLSR who lost everything because they worried about international oppression and stopped concerning themselves first and foremost with the peasantry who trusted in them. This populist left party must first begin with society building and not let leftist ideology veil non-democratic action for the sole purpose of establishing power.
Radical change in the twenty-first century is possible. But it will be impressively difficult. There are three types of people opposed to this change: those who are the oppressors, tourists through life (centrists), and revolutionary live action role players and peaceniks (idealists). The oppressors exist in both parties. Trump is a clear vision of the need for system change. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is what a monster looks like when it mourns its reflection. She is the fate that awaits anyone who embraces the emptiness hidden in each of our hearts. Tourists through life believe that there is a calculus of people in which certain types of social niceties can exist “ethically” with certain types of oppression. This is Candy Land. It is naive and not actually politics. The second type of idealist, peaceniks- who have their hearts in the right place but also live in the illusion that system level oppression can be handled through non-violence. Of course, second are the live action role players with their Communist Manifestos and Kropotkin quotes who will say “We have old systems to help! We have old systems to help!” But these old systems never accommodated the truly oppressed and were not prepared for intersectionality and the understanding that while necessary the community truly needs to be in control and able to survive without new barbaric forms of oppression emerging. So I say to the oppressors, fear yourself. To the centrist I say, wake up! And to the live action role players, remove your veil. Being informed by the past is necessary but developing a new populist-socialist movement requires direct democracy and action beyond protest and strikes.