The Russian Revolution: a view from the Third World (study guide)

Aug 3, 2022

The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World by Walter Rodney offers an excellent example of basing one’s conclusions and assessments on of all available evidence, data, and contextual information. As a radical historian, Rodney’s example has much to offer the movement today. For more, see the accompanying Liberation School article on Rodney’s life, work, research, and pedagogy here.

Foreword (Vijay Prashad)

  1. In the opening passages of the Foreword to Rodney’s posthumous The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World Vijay Prashad focuses our attention on the background of the book’s author. Why might Prashad deem it necessary to begin by commenting on Rodney’s working-class, Guyanese background? (vii-viii)
  2. Prashad then turns to Rodney’s observation that to really grasp any particular revolution one has to live it. If this is not possible, the next best thing is to experience it. What is it that Prashad suggests Rodney learned through experiencing the revolutions of both Russia and Cuba? (viii)
  3. The next contextually relevant piece Prashad turns to is Rodney’s experience teaching as a professor in Tanzania in the mid 1960s and therefore living amidst the country’s turn toward socialist revolution. How does this further our understanding of the context informing Rodney and his text? In other words, how was Rodney seized by the times, according to Prashad? (ix-xii)
  4. Discuss the way Prashad situates Rodney’s assessment of the Russian Revolution as an earlier stage in a global revolution he was then experiencing in Africa as an adult. In other words, discuss the connection between the Russian revolution and the socialist revolutions sweeping Africa and much of the so-called third world in the post-World War II era. (xii-xiii)
  5. What does it mean that Rodney’s Marxist assessment of the world always began with a concrete assessment of concrete facts? (xii-xiii)
  6. What was Rodney’s critique of national liberation and why do you think Prashad draws attention to it? (xii-xiii)
  7. What are the practical implications of the fact that Rodney taught his Tanzanian students about the Russian Revolution not as a mere academic exercise, but from a revolutionary perspective? (xii-xiii)

Introduction by Robin D. G. Kelley

  1. What is dialectical materialism, and what does it say that Rodney took dialectical materialism as a guiding logic to his approach to teaching the history of revolutions? (xix-xxi)
  2. Since more and more academics are currently joining socialist and radical organizations in the U.S. and beyond, what can we learn from Rodney’s approach to organizing in relation to the academic sector? (xxvii)
  3. Rodney’s work, Kelley notes, assumed that his audience had a basic knowledge of the Russian Revolution. Kelley argues this can no longer be assumed since so much time has passed since the U.S.-facilitated fall of the Soviet Union. Kelley therefore supplements Rodney’s work with a historical overview. What are some of your biggest take-aways from this section? (xxxvi-lviii)
  4. Discuss the contours and ultimate significance of the strategic and tactical debate between Bernstein, Kautsky, Luxemburg, and Lenin regarding reform and revolution in the struggle for socialism. (xli)
  5. Kelley outlines the complex balance of forces that eventually led the Bolsheviks to reject dual-power and to adopt the slogan All Power to the Soviets, eventually leading to the popular seizure of state power. Discuss the similarities and differences between Kelley’s account and that offered by the PSL (see “How ‘The State and Revolution’ changed history” for example)? (xli, xlix)
  6. Kelley ends this section by discussing the establishment of the Third International and the role of the colonized world within it. What is the significance of this dynamic? (lvi)
  7. Kelley then turns to Rodney’s particular approach to the Russian Revolution, which was based on a course he taught on the “internal dynamics of revolution.” The opening lectures, Kelley notes, frame “the basic antagonism” in “historical interpretation” between idealism and materialism. The significance of this is not just that it is a debate. It is more than a debate. The struggle over interpretation is a fundamental element of the class struggle. What does this struggle look like today, right now, locally, nationally and internationally? (lviii)
  8. Why does Kelley argue that issues of the peasantry and collectivization were key for Rodney? What similarities are there to his own experiences in Tanzania? How does this relate to “stageism”? (lxii)
  9. Why does Rodney, according to Kelley, characterize tsarist Russia as imperialist and settler-colonial in particular, and thus, Soviet Federalism as a model for decolonization? (lxvi-lxix)
  10. What, according to Kelley, is the theoretical significance of Rodney’s work, and why does he insist it must be understood as a theoretical and not just an activist or practical contribution? (lxx-lxxii)

Chapter 1

  1. What primary issues does Rodney identify that African scholars had to resolve in the process of decolonization? How does this focus inform Rodney’s dialectical approach? Or, how is his analysis of African decolonization’s imperatives an indication of his materialist dialectics? (1)
  2. Discuss Rodney’s observation on page 3 that “there is every reason to be suspicious of the Western European (and American) view of the Soviet Revolution, and there is every reason to seek an African view.” Why does Rodney think we ought to be suspicious of the Western European/American view of the Revolution?
  3. Rodney then offers a powerful glimpse of the perspective he is offering: Through centuries, Africa was violently dragged into and subsumed within European imperialism. The Russian Revolution constitutes the first major break from this destructive system thereby impacting the entirety of the global system including Africa. How does Rodney theorize African perspectives within the idealism/materialism debate? (4)
  4. What larger methodological or pedagogical commitments is Rodney expressing when he proclaims that “there are many popes in the Marxist world” which will “hopefully…be avoided in this study?” (10)
  5. Discuss Rodney’s explanation of the following conclusion: “the conservative historians always expose themselves by their contemptuous attitude toward the working people” (12).
  6. In his exploration of bourgeois historians Rodney points to a 1957 publication by R.N. Carew Hunt, who was “widely believed to be a British intelligence agent” parading as a “scholar and authority on the Soviet Union” (14). Later on, Rodney comments on Stanford University’s Hoover Institution for War and Peace, which “is notorious for its connections with the CIA, the Pentagon and the State Department” (18). These are important reminders that the CIA and NATO-led cultural cold war in the post-WWII era was an escalation of an already-existing practice. There is no reason to believe that this tradition is not currently alive and well. What practical relevance do these observations have for organizers today?
  7. Explaining the hegemony or dominance of the bourgeois approach to the Russian Revolution and history more generally, Rodney turns to an interrogation of “the university institutions that are responsible for the vast majority of research and publications in the field” as “an important element in the superstructure.” From this perspective it should be expected that the university, especially the leading universities, exist to “serve the interests of the capitalist or bourgeois class” (15). How has the role of the university shifted or intensified within the context of the expansion of the knowledge economy since the 1960s? What are the “important elements in the superstructure” that shape opinion and discussion under today’s imperialism?
  8. Rodney also points to the reactionary influence of Soviet defectors elevated to prominent positions at elite U.S. academies such as Yale (17). What does the tactic of using first-hand accounts to discredit socialist countries look like today both within and outside of universities?

Chapter 2

  1. Rodney says that to understand any revolution historically, one must grasp as fully as possible the context in which it developed. How does Rodney contextualize the Russia in which the twentieth century revolutions emerged? Why does he call it a blended society, part feudalism, part capitalism? (25)
  2. Why does Rodney characterize pre-1917 Russia as imperialist? (29)
  3. How does Rodney characterize the February revolution, and why have bourgeois historians tended to support the Provisional Government? (30)
  4. Rodney explains that we can determine how democratic a society is by observing to whom the ruling parties/party are responsible.. (32) How can we relate this to the U.S. today?
  5. How does Rodney contextualize patriotism? How does he build his argument that bourgeois historians use patriotism as a cover for their own class interests? (33)
  6. What are the current implications of the argument against spontaneity as an explanation of the Russian Revolution? How does Rodney assess Trotsky’s position in terms of the revolutionary role of the Bolsheviks (i.e. the party of Lenin), particularly as it relates to the underground work of raising the consciousness of the workers and peasants? (35)
  7. What is it about the Revolution that the bourgeoisie “cannot see”? (37)
  8. Rodney notes that unlike the February revolution, historians do not question who led and orchestrated the October revolution. No historian, Marxist or bourgeois, claims the October revolution was “spontaneous”. It is clear that the Bolsheviks led it and assumed state power as a result. How does Rodney assess the Bolsheviks’ actions? (39)
  9. Bourgeois historians question the popular appeal of the October revolution and support for the Bolsheviks in particular. How does Rodney address this issue? Why is it important, for example, that the Petrograd Soviet began adopting the slogans of the Bolsheviks when the masses lost faith in the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries after they cooperated with the Provisional Government. With this shift the Bolsheviks went from a minority to a majority within the very significant Petrograd Soviet. What is different about a “proletarian democracy” in Rodney’s (and Lenin’s) view? (40)
  10. How does Rodney explain the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly as a result of the speed of revolution? Discuss how the Soviets had formally adopted nearly all of the Bolsheviks’ positions, which the Constituent Assembly refused to accept. How did Lenin and the Bolsheviks interpret this? (41)

Chapter 3

  1. Refuting claims that Marx’s (and Engels’) approach to history was stageist Rodney notes that “Marx’s…historical or dialectical materialism is a method that can be applied to different situations to give different answers. Marx’s comments on Western Europe were based on a thoroughly comprehensive study of the evidence that he had before him…Hence to say anything about Russia would also require close study of what was going on in Russia.” (50) In our own period, what might we closely study in order to understand the potential for socialist revolution in the U.S.?
  2. What are some of the partial truths bourgeois historians have used to distance the Bolsheviks from Marxism, and in the process, demonize them and the revolution? (58)
  3. How does Rodney explain the broad differences between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks within the Marxist tradition? Why does he argue their differences were initially more about tactics and organization than about interpretations of Marx’s works? What changed? What did World War I have to do with this shift? (64)
  4. How does Rodney explain the broad similarities between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks in relation to bourgeois historians? Similarly, why does Rodney say it was not uncommon for bourgeois historians to take sides within the debate and struggles between competing interpretations of Marxism? (68)
  5. Why does Rodney conclude that the Bolsheviks were correct in their charge that the Menshevik analysis was dogmatic and mechanistic? What idea does Rodney borrow from Mao in drawing this conclusion? (70)
  6. In outlining the history of class struggles in Russia, Rodney compares the French Revolution of the 18th century and the Russian Revolution of the 20th What distinct differences does Rodney point to that account for their vastly different trajectories and outcomes? (73)
  7. What accounts for the Russian bourgeoisie’s timidity, according to Rodney? What role in the balance of class forces inside Russia before the revolutionary era does Rodney attribute to foreign capital? (74)
  8. How does Rodney articulate the differences between the Russian proletariat and the proletariat of Western Europe a century before? What significance does Rodney attribute to these differences? What lessons might we acquire for the struggle for socialism in the US today? (76)

Chapter 4

  1. What connection is Rodney making when praising Trotsky’s use of historical materialism and the originality of the historical texts he produced? (81)
  2. Discuss the differences Rodney identifies between Trotsky and the official Soviet versions of the events that led to the Bolsheviks taking state power. What importance does consciousness and material conditions play in Trotsky’s account, according to Rodney? (83)
  3. What is combined development? Why does Rodney argue it will make industrial workers more revolutionary in Russia? (84) Is it a concept relevant to socialist organizers today? Explain.
  4. What role did the idea of permanent revolution play in Trotsky’s assessment, according to Rodney? (84)

Chapter 5

  1. In Chapter 5 Rodney takes up claims of inevitability when it comes to revolution. How does he summarize the position of some Marxists, including the Soviet position, regarding the assumed inevitability of the Russian revolution specifically and socialist revolution more generally? (91-98)
  2. Whereas the essential contradiction in a more developed capitalist system is between bourgeois and proletarian, in tsarist Russia the essential contradiction was between peasant and landlord. What is the significance of this in assessing the events that led up to revolution? (92)
  3. Interrogating claims of inevitability, Rodney goes back to assess the events that led up to the revolutionary era. Noting the widespread serf rebellions, which eventually led to the Emancipation Act of 1861 that ended serfdom, Rodney documents its inadequacy as a reform. Discuss its limitations (outlined on page 93) and why they led Soviet historians to conclude revolution was inevitable.
  4. What do bourgeois historians have to say about the land issue and alternatives to revolution? How does Rodney respond to their proposals? (94)
  5. Rodney notes that the idea of “political liberalization” after the 1905 revolution also proved tenuous as progressive reforms are only ever advanced when the tsar was weak, but when the balance of class forces swings back in favor of the elite, previous advances are withdrawn. (98) What similarities can we point to today in regards to the Democratic Party?
  6. What are the parameters of the debate about the role of WWI as a cause of the 1917 revolutions (100)? What implications does this have for socialist organizers in the U.S. today, the leading world imperialist power with a nearly $1 trillion military budget, nearly 1000 military bases in every corner of the world, and poised to plunge the world into World War III?

Chapter 6

  1. Rodney begins Chapter 6 with a straightforward and clear statement on the German Karl Kautsky, “who had known both Marx and Engels since his youth, and after their deaths he became their principal literary executor” (105). Kautsky’s harsh condemnation of the Bolsheviks was therefore quite significant internationally. Kautsky argues that Marx’s conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat as proletarian democracy was not yet possible in Russia since the proletariat were not the majority. Consequently, Kautsky concludes that the Bolsheviks’ seizure of state power represented an anti-democratic dictatorship imposing its will on the peasantry. As evidence, Kautsky cites the Bolsheviks’ dismissal of the popularly elected Constituent Assembly. Discuss the three categories of Lenin’s responses that Rodney identifies.
  2. Discuss the contemporary relevance of the point Rodney focuses on regarding the dogmatism of Kautsky and why bourgeois critics tend to point to Kautsky’s view as the true representation of Marxism. (110)
  3. What does it say that what happened between 1918 and 1921 was referred to by Kautsky as a civil war and by Lenin as a counterrevolution? What connection to social democracy and class collaborationism does Rodney draw? (112)
  4. Rodney notes that Rosa Luxemburg, contrary to Kautsky, was in agreement with the Bolsheviks that the February 1917 revolution was a continuation of 1905 and the result of the ripening of class contradictions within Russia and not the result of external German liberators; however, Luxemburg broke with the Bolshkeviks in October regarding the Constituent Assembly, the national question, and land redistribution (113). How is Rodney’s response a critique of dogmatism?

Chapter 7

  1. How does Rodney explain the land collectivization policy of 1929-1930? Who were the kulaks? How does Rodney explain how Western cold warriors spun this situation against communism and the Bolsheviks in particular? (117-119)
  2. Rodney revisits the violence used by poor peasants in carrying out collectivization directed at the wealthy, exploiting peasants, the kulaks, and how the Bolsheviks did not anticipate such violence. Discuss the contemporary significance of Rodney’s assessment that the peasants’ violence was not the product of the new system, of the process of building socialism, but stemmed from “capitalist exploitation and oppression which had bred such hatred in the minds of those who suffered from it.” (120)
  3. Within this discussion of the poor peasants’ actions against their oppressors, Rodney makes a personal connection and plea to his audience. Consider, “we who have suffered from the same exploitation and oppression ought to be able to take a more understanding view of why the poor peasants wrecked personal vengeance on the kulaks and other well-to-do peasants” (120). What are some contemporary examples of this spirit of international solidarity?
  4. Why does Rodney argue that the violence used by the poor peasants must be condemned by communists, and that the Bolshevik government should assume some responsibility for the violence that occurred? How does this relate to the distinction he draws between what we might call revolutionary violence and violence used after the armed phase of revolution in order to carry out the revolution’s policies for building a new society? (120-121)
  5. Bourgeois writers, Rodney notes, take the Soviet experience to conclude that collectivization can only be done by force and that peasants, because of their relationship to private property, will always prefer capitalism to socialism. Rodney draws on the research that refutes this claim by demonstrating that other methods to collectivize such as persuasion and economic incentives have proven far more effective and long-lasting than coercion (121-123). Are there contemporary examples where this lesson is relevant for socialist organizers today?
  6. Rodney offers a bit of revolutionary optimism when he suggests that the lessons and mistakes made by the Soviet Union can be used in Africa to “produce other examples of the successful peaceful collectivization of agriculture and the institution of socialism in the agrarian sector” (123). Discuss what this suggests about the continuity or interconnectedness of people’s movements and the development of global capitalism.
  7. While Rodney critiques the Bolsheviks for departing from Lenin’s position regarding the process of collectivization, later on in the chapter he offers contextual insights explaining why the kulaks had to be crushed when they were—insights that Lenin would not have been able to predict. That is, Rodney notes that wealthy kulaks controlled 20 percent of the marketable grain stores and would rather hoard it than release it to the state at a discounted price. To advance and develop, the Bolsheviks needed both to raise the people’s standard of living, and to develop militarily to defend the revolution from external imperialist threats; in short, the state needed to distribute what the kulaks hoarded. The kulaks, by putting their narrow class interests before the common interest of all, were acting as a barrier to overcoming underdevelopment and vulnerability. Discuss what this example suggests about the need to base decisions and policies off of immediate concrete conditions. For example, Lenin’s conclusions about the process of collectivization were based on a concrete assessment of a moment that had passed. New conclusions were reached based on the changing situation. This is not to say that mistakes were not made. It is to say though that knowing the most correct line of action is not as straightforward as following predetermined guidelines (i.e. dogma) (125). Does anyone have any reflections or comments?
  8. How do bourgeois historians use the degraded conditions amongst the peasantry to attempt to argue capitalism is superior to socialism (126)? How do bourgeois commentators use the results of sanctions against Cuba, for example, to make similar arguments today?
  9. Rodney provides a lengthy discussion of what Soviet historians described as the three eras of development after the so-called Civil War and collectivization. What effect does Rodney’s framing as an historian have on laying out these sections? (126)
  10. Discuss the major advances in industrial output and income within the 3 eras identified between 1921 and 1938. What factors does Rodney identify as central? (128)
  11. What is the significance of the Soviet Union’s economic growth during the same time the economic output of the capitalist world was rapidly declining (i.e. the Great Depression)? What does this say about the superiority of socialism to capitalism from the perspective of working people? (129)
  12. Rodney opens the next subsection with a general comment on the writing of history as not just the task of historians, but includes all the social sciences and the various ways of advancing theory and testing it against actual experience. As a result of this general formula, Rodney notes that the overwhelming positive experience of the Soviet Union caused the theory that socialism cannot work in practice to significantly wither. However, bourgeois economists only began to acknowledge the evidence when it was too overwhelming to ignore. That evidence too big to ignore was the launching of Sputnik in 1957. The other side to acknowledging the positives of socialism is to acknowledge the negatives of capitalism, which bourgeois economists were much more hesitant to admit (130). How might socialist organizers use these insights today? How do they remain valid despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991?
  13. Rodney then turns to the qualifications bourgeois economists make to minimize or degrade the achievements of the Soviet Union. Discuss those qualifications and how this pattern persists today. (133) In what ways have bourgeois economists in the U.S., for example, acknowledged the nearly one billion people China has lifted out of poverty in recent years? How have bourgeois scholars and corporate media attempted to minimize this achievement?
  14. In his response to the accusation that the Soviet Union sacrificed food production for industrial development, Rodney notes that it was Western European and North American capitalists who sacrificed food production in colonial areas (i.e. Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, North America) through slavery and the reliance on cash crops to advance capitalist industrialization. In essence, bourgeois writers have attempted to accuse socialists of the crimes committed by capitalists (138). What contemporary examples can we point to?
  15. What are the primary and glaring contradictions Rodney points out regarding the bourgeois accusation that the Soviet Union’s success was due to forced labor? (139-142)
  16. How does Rodney refute the claim that Russia would have developed as it did without the revolution? Why does Rodney argue these claims are as much directed at the so-called third-world as they are to the Soviet Union? (148)
  17. How does Rodney respond to the claim that “Marxist historical theory was incorrect” (149) because Marx believed socialist revolution would only occur in advanced industrial countries?
  18. In this discussion Rodney makes an important point regarding Marxism not as a dogma but as a method. Discuss the following excerpt: “…Marxism is not a finished and complete product contained in a given number of texts… Marxism is a method and a worldview. Neither Marx nor Engels believed their interpretations were unassailable given the limited amount of scientific and accurate data available to them, as well as their own limitations. Furthermore, new situations arising after their time required new analysis. This is where Lenin made his major contributions…” (150)
  19. Rodney ends the chapter with a few short paragraphs on Lenin’s analysis of imperialism and how it explains revolutionary Russia and the subsequent revolutions that spread through Africa, Asia, and Latin America after WWII. Discuss the significance of Rodney’s “view from the third world.” (151)

Chapter 8

  1. Why does Rodney argue that tsarist Russia was imperialist? (153-156)
  2. What examples from Africa does Rodney provide that show the need to smash the state and replace it with new structures designed to meet the peoples’ needs? This is another place you could engage in a discussion of current examples. (157)
  3. Why does Rodney argue education reforms were the most important part of the process of overcoming national oppression? (157)
  4. How does Rodney summarize the way bourgeois writers dealt with the national question in tsarist Russia? (162)
  5. Discuss the debate within Marxism regarding nationalism: inherently reactionary or contextually contingent? What approach does Rodney take and why? (163-166)

Chapter 9

  1. In the final chapter Rodney engages the critiques of so-called “Stalinism.” The chapter opens by summarizing the bourgeois claim that in the Soviet Union the roles of base/superstructure were reversed thereby discrediting dialectical materialism. How does Rodney respond to this claim? (169)
  2. Before addressing the critiques of Stalin, Rodney makes another important point: that any revolution is never the product of one person alone, but “the tremendous effort of the people.” (172) Why is this an important insight socialists should never lose sight of?
  3. How does Rodney counter the charge that Stalin advocated for the policy of “socialism in one country” thereby betraying and abandoning the working class internationally? (173-174)
  4. How does Rodney counter the charge that Stalin was responsible for the development of a large bureaucratic structure thereby subverting the withering away of the state? (175-176)
  5. Rodney notes that the bourgeois demonization of Stalin in Western Europe and North America was so pervasive that it had become common sense. In the so-called Third World, Rodney notes, the monstrous image of the evil Stalin was mobilized in attempts to scare people away from national liberation movements. (178) A lot has changed since Rodney drafted this book nearly 50 years ago. But there is a new Cold War emerging. What lessons does Rodney offer socialist organizers today?
  6. Rodney mentions the so-called Stalin purges without much refutation. The evidence of the gross exaggerations and the larger context of foreign agent provocateurs were not yet available before Rodney’s assassination. (177-180) See, for example, Black Shirts and Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism by Michael Parenti. How could we reframe our interpretations in light of newer information?
  7. Rodney explains how the Soviet Union existed not in an abstract theoretical world, but in the real world with real counter-revolutionary threats and saboteurs. Rodney points out that during the Stalin era “the internal enemy had not yet been crushed and was receiving aid from the capitalist powers” encouraging them to “undermine the Soviet state.” (182) How might this context help us understand what contemporary socialist states are contending with?
  8. In refuting the claim that communism is equivalent to fascism, Rodney explains what fascism actually is, drawing on Germany and South Africa as examples. Discuss Rodney’s explanation. (183)
  9. When Rodney was writing, the Soviet Union was a major world power and had a significant influence on world socialist consciousness; Rodney’s strategic orientation is addressed to this context and moment in the international socialist movement. Today the USSR is a thing of the past and capitalist counter-revolution has left wreckage in the wake of its fall. How should our starkly contrasting moment transform the strategic thinking that emerges from our study of the Revolution? Having worked through Rodney’s perspective, what is important to remember about the Revolution, and the workers’ state it created, for today’s struggle?