Running Ahead and Rolling Back
No. 4 2017 October/December
Victor Sumsky

PhD in History, is the Director of the ASEAN Center at MGIMO University of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The World Revolutionary Process and Modern Russia

Assessments and views regarding the centenary of the revolutionary events of 1917 in Russia vary, but many professional historians agree that, with all reservations, it was a Great Revolution which had a profound impact on both the fate of Russia and world history. At the same time, “the world revolutionary process,” which evolved in the recent past under the influence of monumental changes on the one-sixth of the world’s land mass, is thought to be over by default after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

But is it really over? And if it is not, does modern Russia have any relation to it? To answer these questions we need to specify what a revolution is.


There are all sorts of qualified and clear definitions of the term. Among non-Marxists (particularly those who have first-hand knowledge of Marxism), the best definition was given perhaps by Samuel Huntington. He defined a revolution as “a rapid, fundamental, and violent domestic change in the dominant values and myths of a society, in its institutions, social structure, leadership, and government activity and policies.” While stressing that a genuine revolution is not confined to overthrowing the old regime and establishing a new one and that it involves and changes the whole society, Huntington notes that such phenomena occur much rarer than government overthrows or local revolts. His words appear to be particularly relevant for those Russians who relish the phrase “October coup.”

Another Western sociology classic, Shmuel Eisenstadt, states that a revolution combines in time and space different manifestations of public protest, on the one hand, and synchronous and mutually accelerating changes in various spheres of human activity, on the other hand. The cumulative effect of both—a breakthrough from a traditional civilization to a modern one—was initially achieved during modern-era revolutions in Western Europe and subsequently during revolutions in Russia and China in the 20th century. But again, the list of events that meet Eisenstadt’s revolution criteria is quite short.

While Max Weber’s followers (including both thinkers mentioned above) view a revolution as a chance to jump from the traditional state to modernity, Marxists view a revolution as a condition for a quantum leap from one socioeconomic system to another. 


How does the mechanism allowing society to acquire a completely new state and keep it actually work? Summarizing the experience of bourgeois revolutions, Marxism-Leninism classics laid the groundwork for the revolutionary waves concept. Their views were systematized and furthered by Russian Academician Nodari Simonia in a series of fundamental works in the 1970s and the 1980s.

According to his theoretical model, the initial revolutionary wave is created by parties and radicals who advocate drastic changes and seize political initiative. At this stage the “progressiveness” of revolutionary power goes far beyond the “measure of progress” a society is ready to accept. There emerges a situation where a political revolution foreruns a social revolution. Simonia called it running ahead.

This mismatch creates conditions for the next stage—rolling back—when counterrevolutionary forces come to the fore. They do their work just as zealously as revolutionary radicals do. The difference is that they try to reverse the political process, forcing society to go back into the past (including ideals and values) much farther than the achieved level of development allows.

As the drive for counterrevolutionary revenge runs out of steam (because the goals pursued by the counterrevolution are just as utopian as those advocated by revolutionary radicals), concessions from a large part of society, which has been riled up by radicals and fed with their ideals, become increasingly obvious. The influence of moderate reformist forces is growing, political struggle sputters out, and society finds a “new center of gravity.”

All these phenomena indicate that the changing society and the renovated government and political system begin to more or less match each other. This matching embodies the real gains of the revolution—what the society undergoing radical transformation was actually capable of and prepared for.  

Paradoxically, the return after turmoil to the path of evolution and steady movement forward along that path clearly indicate not only that the revolutionary cycle is over (including counterrevolution as its inalienable part), but also that the revolution was justified and effective and, therefore, successful as a means of social transformation. 

Although Simonia developed and used his concept to analyze the situation in Oriental countries that had shaken off colonial dependence, it was clear already then that his ideas had enough explanatory and prognostic potential to be used much wider. Essentially he created instruments for assessing the regularity of sociopolitical changes in individual countries and understanding why the world revolutionary process evolves in this particular way. 

Today, a closer look at the era of world history that was ushered in at the beginning of the 20th century by a series of Russian revolutions gives reasons to describe it as a “global running ahead.” Created by a series of local upsurges in revolutionary radicalism, this “momentous running ahead” lasted much longer than such phenomena usually do at the national level. The world revolutionary process was considered irreversible, but it was a false assumption largely because the Soviet Union, as the stronghold of this movement and the main product of the Great Revolution, failed, despite numerous attempts, to embark on the path of sustainable evolutionary development. Apart from purely internal—objective and subjective—factors that impeded the development, there was the need to support the world revolutionary process, which at that time was for the most part running ahead of itself. Another point to remember is that the downside of that “running ahead”—the world counterrevolution (nearly permanent within that period of time)—continued for seventy years. Importantly, the wheel of global counterrevolution was spun not only by “team West,” but also by China which was actively playing on its side since the 1970s. By doing so and by distancing itself from revolutionary radicalism, China was able to avoid the Cold War perils and build up its potential for successful market reforms. 


In the events that at the turn of the century led to a dramatic decline in revolutionary activities, such as the disintegration of the world socialist system, the end of the bipolar confrontation and the collapse of the Soviet Union, our country was destined to play a key but unenviable role. These events heralded a global “rolling back” period, or in other words a triumph of world counterrevolution. The most convincing proof of that is that the forces which celebrated their victory in the Cold War were unable at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries to offer the world new ideals different from those that drove the young European bourgeoisie to the political stage three or maybe even four hundred years ago. The wave of “velvet” and “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe, the post-Soviet space, and the former Third World should not mislead anyone. Counterrevolution, which has always sought to mimic the enemy and seize its popular slogans, methods of organizing mass political campaigns, and its protest symbols, must take into account the fact that Great Revolutions, including the Russian ones, have made people accept a revolution as a legitimate way to change an unfair order. By contrast, “color revolutions” with their common anticommunist fervor and neoliberal mantras are designed solely to benefit “their” oligarchs, give transnational capital greater access to other countries’ assets and rob the people.  

No wonder, demand for social justice becomes popular among different protest movements sweeping the world. The concordant tendency to overcome the unipolar world order through joint efforts of such countries as China (which, however, is in no hurry to give up socialist ideals), India, Brazil, and Russia (which is resolving the deepest system crisis of the 1990s within the shortest time in history) is gaining momentum.

Although there are numerous indications that the “rolling back” phase is ebbing away, I would not hurry to predict its quick end (given the belligerent stance assumed by world counterrevolutionary forces led by the United States and its allies). But I cannot but say that they now have a strong and undisguised opponent, which is confident of its historical rightness, and it is undoubtedly Russia. Its leitmotif in this confrontation is the protection of the right to sovereign and successful evolutionary development for its own people and for other peoples. Russia is struggling against the trend that prevailed across the world with its active participation not so long ago. By so doing, Russia is aspiring to complete the process started in October 1917 by the Great Revolution.    

Is sustainable movement possible in a world where competition is getting increasingly fierce amid the emerging technological innovation mode and an impending new round of struggle for global hegemony? I think there is a chance to succeed if Russia, jointly with other reasonable forces, prevents a new world war on the international front, and declares war on inequality and poverty at home. 

If this happens, the centenary of the Great Revolution, carried out in order to give “peace to the peoples and bread to the hungry,” will be remembered as a milestone event celebrated with real deeds rather than declarations.