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Göran Therborn’s acceptance speech

From one revolutionary era to another

The Lenin Award is, by its name, an intentional provocation, not only against the bourgeoisie and the good stock market prices, but also against the silent, the cautious and timid, who sit still and patiently wait for what the government will come up with, such as for instance the January agreement this year, about which gaps to expand and what social rights should be cut back.

It is an honour for an academic sociology researcher to receive this year’s edition of this award together with the major critical cultural creators who received it before me. And to be introduced – embraced as a brother – by the country’s greatest actor. I would like to warmly thank Lasse Diding and his advisors for the award. Lasse reminds us of the words of the Manifesto: “The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.”

I would also like to thank Jan Myrdal, who was the second founder of the award, one of Northern Europe’s great intellectuals in our time. Like many others, I have often disagreed with him, but I have never been so close to him that we have become enemies.

No Nobel laureate is usually asked about what she thinks about Nobel and about dynamite. But a Lenin Award Laureate can’t avoid questions about Lenin, often excited. Lenin was not a drawing room Bolshevik, but a devoted and ruthless revolutionary who mercilessly defended the revolution in a civil war on life and death and against simultaneous invasions by a number of foreign powers. We, who Brecht called Die Nachgeborenen, the descendants, should consider that time with reflection, without romance, without blinkers and without gullibility before the tales of the victors. Lenin was one of the few active political opponents of the First World War and its meaningless human slaughter. He cannot be equated with persons such as Harry Truman, who with the stroke of a pen eradicated the lives of 230,000 civilians, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Lenin’s criticism of Stalin is well-known, but it is still being discussed in what extent in the monstrous Stalinization of communism there were genes from Lenin. In any case, it is clear that in the communist tradition there was so much more than Stalinism that the movement after Stalin’s death produced a whole array of democratic socialists as leaders, Enrico Berlinguer, Luís Corvalán, Alexander Dubcek, Mikhail Gorbachev, Chris Hani, CH Hermansson, EMS Namboodiripad et al. Then there is another thing, that Lenin as a thinker and politician too often can remind contemporary readers about Hans Rosling, “I am right, you are wrong”.

Revolution as emancipation and dialectics

Lenin was undeniably a central figure in a revolutionary era that began with the American and French revolutions, which continued in the 20th century with the Russian, Chinese and Cuban revolutions, and which ended approximately at the turn of the millennium. The epoch had a central pair of concepts for the societal change sought, emancipation, liberation, concepts with roots in the Enlightenment’s goal of human authority, autonomy, liberation from cages of rightlessness. The concepts were used for religious minorities – the emancipation of Jews, Catholics (e.g. in England) – the liberation or emancipation of slaves, nations, working class, women. The emancipation/liberation did not necessarily have to be violent or even subversive, but it should be revolutionary, a clear break with previous states of oppression.

The concepts retained their centrality in progressive thinking in the 1960s, 1970s, Women’s emancipation/liberation, Black liberation, national liberation movements, liberation theology. One could also, in the Anglo-Saxon world, encounter the Gay Liberation Front. But the liberation of the working class did already not sound very convincing, and towards the end of the century the other liberations also silenced.

Why? Most likely because the sharp boundary between now and the future expressed by the image of breaking out of a cage no longer seems convincing as a realistic picture, either of the present or of a more unclear future. Positive changes had been conquered, which meant that the concept of the cage and minority could not really be recognized.

The twentieth-century revolutions and social upheavals were driven by two major dialectical processes, where the development of the system carried and strengthened its opponent. One was industrial capitalism, whose development created the industrial working class, concentrated and exploited in Petrograd. The Russian Revolution was the major revolutionary outbreak of industrial capitalist dialectics, but the same dialectic could also flow slower and wider. In Western Europe, the industrial working class reached its largest extent, its strongest position on the labour market and in workplaces and politics in the years around 1970.

The second great dialectic of the 20th century was that of modern colonialism. It stopped economic development in countries like India and China, but it also provided an educated layer of the population with insight into ideas of nation, democracy and emancipation. National liberation movements arose that came to carry out a worldwide decolonization.

Lenin’s greatest political significance was that he came to explicitly and effectively link the revolutionary part of European labour movement with the anti-colonial movements. That link eventually led to the Great Revolution in China.

Both dialectics of the 20th century are now history. The successful decolonization has ended the colonial, and in Zionist settler colonialism there is no inherent social dialectic. Indeed, capitalism does persist, but the industry is outflanked by financial capitalism, which hardly creates any antagonistic finance working class. The European industrial society will not be recreated in the Global South. Industrial employment has already begun to decline in India, China and Latin America, at a level of 12-15 per cent of those active.

The 21st century’s upcoming revolutions

A revolutionary era may have ended, but a second begins. No signs suggest that the world as a whole is becoming silent and content, even less that it should have any reason for that. On the contrary, one can say. Successful urban rebellions have returned, a century after Friedrich Engels, the General of the 1848 barricades, declared them outdated. There are examples from Manila and Bangkok to Khartoum, Alger and Tunis. It can be objected that the social meaning of the rebellions, despite their regime overthrows, is unclear, ambiguous, and at least not so far socialist or anti-imperialist. Our century’s revolutions have no developmental logic, and no predetermined main actors, no secure victors, even in the long run.

But three ongoing and increasingly interconnected processes will bring about social revolutions as pervasive as the industrial revolution and will generate conflicts of power and political upheaval. Where these will lead cannot be predicted.

The clearest of the three processes is the accelerating inequality in the world, which is becoming increasingly visible, as it becomes more concentrated in the near, within the country, and more globally exposed. In the post-industrial world, these gaps will not be tackled in negotiations between capital and strong unions and in coalitions between reform parties engaged in “the social issue”. Such actors are dying, or weak from old age. The fight against the hoarding of resources and opportunities by the privileged will likely be more like the more violent campaigns of the Yellow Vests and the Global South’s IMF riots against the neo-liberal adjustment programs of the 1980s.

The second major revolutionary process is the reshaping of the entire working life with artificial intelligence, robotization and machine learning. This digital revolution has the ability to transform work, livelihood, social relations as extensively and radically as the historical agricultural and industrial revolutions. The fearsome thing is that it is driven and dominated by a handful of capitalist giant companies that control the entire world economy. Who should decide on who should get employment and who shouldn’t in the new economy? And on what terms?

The climate crisis and the continual warming of the Earth is the third transformational world process of our time, the most serious. Between apocalypse and technocratic sunshine optimism lies, mostly undiscussed, the new social issues: How much must change? How fast? Who will be doing the adaptation? Who will bear the costs? Who should be able to continue their lifestyle as before? It is around these issues that the third social revolution of our century will unfold.

We who are present are committed to the freedom, equality and opportunity for all people to live and develop on earth. We can no longer invoke the dialectics of history on our side. We are no longer sure what humanity’s liberation would mean.

What we know and feel is the inequality, insecurity, injustice and evil in today’s world. Lenin’s policy belongs to another era. But his thinking power, boldness and courage will be needed in the social upheavals of our century.