It seems our era has just stumbled upon its second major crisis—one brought about fascism. The rise of xenophobic racism, religious fanaticism, blatant sexism and paranoid nationalism may seem like an anomaly in our neoliberal era, but if we look into the phenomenon closely we will understand that the rise of fascism in recent history is a cognate as well as a reflection of a neoliberal worldview itself. It all began in the name of freedom but the path that neoliberalism is taking us to is anything but freedom. What we have witnessed in the last thirty years is the gradual withdrawal of the state from the public services; a process that has made some individuals immensely rich but ordinary people powerless. The irony though is this that when big corporations tumbled one by one after the 2008 economic crisis, they did not follow their own mantra of state neutrality. Powerful businesses took the public money to stay afloat, while people suffered, and families struggled. This led towards spontaneous popular uprisings around the world; big businesses had to often face a hostile lot, something not in evidence since the dissolution of the socialist states in Europe and elsewhere. The rise of global fascism is, in fact, the corporate world's revenge against what it perceives to be distrustful and disobedient people
Neoliberalism's recipe for global destruction does not end with the systemic production of wars and famines; decades of careless pollution and industrialization have brought about catastrophic changes in the climate of the planet. Many natural scientists now agree that human beings have entered the first stage of their extinction. They have also come up with a name of this era of human extinction: the Anthropocene.
At the beginning of this year, globally renowned historian Dipesh Chakrabarty came to Dhaka to deliver two lectures—one at Dhaka University and the other at a program arranged by the Center for Bangladesh Studies. In both lectures Professor Chakrabarty warned us about the global ecological crisis, explaining how we must change our ways in order to survive longer. Chakrabarty's friend, the celebrated writer Amitav Ghosh, published a book this year titled The Great Derangement in which he postulates similar arguments. When people look back at our era, he writes, they will identify it as the era of great derangement because instead of saving ourselves from collective extinction, we have allowed ourselves to be swallowed up by relentless consumption. Yet, both Chakrabarty and Ghosh are happy putting the blame on the species as a whole, as if everyone played a part in it. This exonerates the crimes of capitalism, erasing its long history of greed and pollution and its reluctance to take into consideration sustainability. Dumb as it may sound, if capitalism had to choose between profit and extinction, it would probably choose profit!
As we look back at the October Revolution from this historical moment of dual crises of global fascism and extinction, what lesson, what inspiration do we draw from it? It is true that the Revolution of 1917 was not a one-dimensional story of proletarian victory; it claimed many lives and was marked by both intrigue and tragedy. As we look back at it now, we notice how it let itself be seduced by Stalinism—the ruthless dictatorship that sucked the soul out of the people's revolution. The Soviet drive for industrialization and its inability to tap into the alternative philosophies about the relation between human beings and nature also register moments of compelling failure. Still, if one is to take proper account of the failures of the Russian Revolution one needs to notice how such failures emerged more out of naiveté than out of the evil intention of ripping profit by sinking the whole planet. True revolutionaries are driven by the purpose of radical equality among beings, not its opposite. The most endearing thing about the October Revolution was that it sought to establish a classless society. Not only did it dream about it, it also acted upon its idealist desire.
Alain Badiou, one of the most important philosophers of our time, has mentioned in one of his essays that the October Revolution marks the beginning of the second phase of the communist hypothesis. The first phase, which covers the period between 1792 (the French Revolution) and 1871 (the Paris Commune), is the time in which revolutionaries labored to create “the community of equals.” This was also the period in which Marx and Engels provided a solid philosophical foundation for revolutionary thought. Although workers' rebellions were violently suppressed everywhere, for the first time in history workers took over states and ruled them. None of these workers' states survived for more than a year and the governance of the workers, students, artists, vagabonds and towns folks was eventually surmounted by the ruling class.
The second phase of the materialization of the dream of a classless society, Badiou tells us, began with the October Revolution and came to an end in 1976 with the falling apart of Mao's Cultural Revolution. The 1917 revolution, then, marks the beginning of the political victory of the dream of a classless society. Of course, it had its failures, but its successes are innumerable too. Almost all the popular movements, especially the third world anti-colonial independence movements of mid-20th century, owe their spirit to the October Revolution. As Bangladeshis, we should not forget that it was the post-revolutionary Soviet Union that stood beside us during our Liberation War, not the capitalist US which sent its seventh fleet to intimidate us in 1971. Also, what Marx would mean to the world and how he would have been read without the mediation of Lenin and the Russian Revolution is an area of speculation. It is safe to presume that Marxist philosophy without the state-sponsored impetus and political organization would have looked too idealistic, and even devoid of practical use.
As an educator myself, the aspect that I find most fascinating about the Russian Revolution is its strategic use of knowledge as a transformative element: Lenin, with the help of other leading members of the party, was able to inspire farmers and workers, men and women who are deliberately kept away from the orbit of institutional learning, to rise above their intellectual imprisonment and become vanguards. Lenin's success, among other things, lay in his ability to inspire the farmer, the worker, the vagabond and the lumpen—a large number of whom were women—to read not only political pamphlets but also economic and philosophical texts.
Education for Lenin was a vehicle for transformation. Behind his idea of revolution lay this idealistic vision that if we are able to create a working class that is not only able to read but also able to bring that knowledge to bear upon its existence, it will be able to create a classless society. It is this aspect of Russian Revolution that gives me hope today. In order to tackle the dual assault of fascism and ecological degradation, we need to go back to the roots of this revolutionary past and learn what made it possible for common people to take control of their own lives. Of course, we must also remain alert that we do not repeat their errors.
Hasan Al Zayed teaches literature and Cultural Studies at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.