100 years of Russian Revolution: Lessons of the October Revolution

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Panel presentation for Socialism 2017 conference, Malaysia By Peter Boyle, Socialist Alliance (Australia) December 1, 2017
— Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal There is much for us to learn from the Russian Revolution in which, for the first time in history, working people took power and held onto it for years against all the odds. Before that, the working people had only managed to hold power for two months in the Paris Commune of 1871. Following the example of Marx and Engels, the Russian revolutionaries studied that heroic if doomed episode not just to respect and pay tribute to those brave pioneers but also to learn valuable lessons for the future. We should do the same with the Russian Revolution.

First step in a world revolution

The October Revolution 1917 was hailed as a socialist revolution — accurately reflecting the leadership of forces expressly committed to ending capitalism and all class division — but in reality it could only begin a transition towards socialism. Lenin wrote in 1918 (and, in 1921, reaffirmed in A Tax In Kind that this was still the case even then) that “the term Soviet Socialist Republic implies the determination of the Soviet power to achieve the transition to socialism, and not that the existing economic system is recognised as a socialist order”. Before Stalin invented his “socialism in one country” (after Lenin’s death), the Bolsheviks agreed that this was not possible, especially in a backward country like Russia where the material conditions for socialism were not developed yet. In 1921, looking back, Lenin said; “Before the revolution, and even after it, we thought: either revolution breaks out in the other countries, immediately, or at least very quickly, or we must perish.” However, the situation in war-weary Europe made the prospect of revolution in more advanced countries like Germany very real. The revolution in Russia - the “weak link” in the imperialist chain - was hence seen “only an essential step towards world revolution”. Recently some of us in the Socialist Alliance have enjoyed reading China Miéville’s October: The Story Of The Russian Revolution. Miéville, who has written a few novels, is a great story teller who has incorporated the considerable post-1989 archival discoveries and new scholarly research into his book. There are some interesting ongoing debates you can read on Links and on John Riddell’s blog on the significance of the new historical material on the Russian Revolution but Miéville’s book uses the new material in a different, less polemical, way: to paint a more vivid picture of the unfolding revolution and the rich and deeply collective discussion about revolutionary strategy and tactics that took place among the generation of revolutionaries who were actors in these heroic historical events that shook the world.

Revolution in the age of imperialism

Miéville’s October captures the powerful actuality of revolution that was taking place independently of the choices of the revolutionaries in this backward imperialist country that was still 80% peasantry and the working class only 10%. Many opponents of the October Revolution raise this leading question: Wouldn’t it have been better, given Russia’s backwardness, if there was no October Revolution and the capitalist government that came to power after the February 1917 revolution was allowed to continue to develop Russian capitalism?
In a 1923 comment on the historical memoirs of the Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov, who in the Petrograd Soviet argued against insurrection against the capitalist Provisional Government, Lenin answered this argument:

Infinitely stereotyped, for instance, is the argument they learned by rote during the development of West-European Social-Democracy, namely, that we are not yet ripe for socialism, but as certain "learned" gentleman among them put it, the objective economic premises for socialism do not exist in our country. Does it not occur to any of them to ask: what about the people that found itself in a revolutionary situation such as that created during the first imperialist war? Might it not, influenced by the hopelessness of its situation, fling itself into a struggle that would offer it at least some chance of securing conditions for the further development of civilization that were somewhat unusual?

… Our Sukhanovs, not to mention Social-Democrats still farther to the right, never even dream that revolutions cannot be made any other way. Our European philistines never even dream that the subsequent revolutions in Oriental countries, which possess much vaster populations in a much vaster diversity of social conditions, will undoubtedly display even greater distinctions than the Russian Revolution.
This is not just an abstract historical question today. This is about the actuality of the revolutionary era we live in today: a revolutionary era shaped by a war-torn world, divided sharply by imperialism, divided into imperialist states and oppressed nationalities and other minorities, divided by racism and national chauvinism. The two World Wars, and the period in between which included the Great Depression, did shake capitalism to the core but the big revolutions they produced were not in the most advanced countries, even if powerful working class movements did grow there. Since then there was Paris 1968, a reminder not to dismiss the possibility of a revolutionary situation in an imperialist country, but it was in China, Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Bolivia were revolutionary movements were able to to have big victories. Today, even amidst the horror of war-torn Syria there is a new revolutionary development in the Federation of Northern Syria — Rojava (and spreading to other areas liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF) that commands our attention and solidarity.
Revolutionary situations develop, often in the most inconvenient conditions and whether revolutionary forces are ready or not. When they are not ready, more often than not, there is a lurch into reactionary dictatorship. On the other hand, these revolutionary outbreaks in the “weakest links” makes a powerful call for solidarity from the working class in the imperialist countries. Generations of activists have been won to the movement in the course of responding and the political soul of the working class movements in those countries hangs on how it responds to this call.

No template but many lessons

Another thing flows from the actuality of October 1917. While we can and must learn from the experience of the Russian Revolution, we can’t look to it for a revolutionary template. The victory in 1917 required great tactical flexibility to unite workers and peasants in a revolutionary struggle against not just Tsarism but against the bourgeoisie, who (as Marx and Engels had observed from the French Revolution) could not be counted upon to complete the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution. There were times when tactical alliances were made even with a reluctant capitalist class, but always to advance or defend the revolution and always with the party of the working class keeping its political independence. Land and peace was at the core of the revolutionary program that united the class forces that made the revolution and the new revolutionary democratic power was based on the worker, soldier and peasant soviets that had developed in the process of revolutionary struggle, first in 1905 and then more powerfully and extensively in 1917. If land and peace united the revolutionary power of workers and peasants, it was the promise of national liberation and autonomy that pulled the oppressed nationalities and minorities in the infamous “prison house of nations” in support of the revolution. The Bolsheviks won the leadership of the revolution through many years of consistent struggle against all oppressions. This had been critical not just to forging the critical revolutionary alliances but it was also at the heart of the longer struggle to win workers to revolutionary consciousness. In the Russian Revolution we see how the mass of working peasants went from a struggle for land and peace to one for “All Power To The Soviets”. Once again, it was the masses who pushed for this in the lead up to October and the revolutionaries were struggling to catch up. When the if, when and how of insurrection was being debated, peasants were already in revolt around the country, there was mass desertion and mutiny in an army ground down by the carnage of WWI. According to Lenin in 1918: “Our revolution… is not the product of a Party decision but… a revolution that the masses themselves create by their slogans, their efforts.”

Revolution defends itself at a cost

The February and October revolutions of 1917 were relatively bloodless and immediately after October the victorious revolutionaries were extraordinarily lenient, even with counter-revolutionaries. Many were simply disarmed and sent home… some to immediately rejoin new counter-revolutionary attacks. The capitalist ruling classes around the world were not prepared to let this revolution enjoy much peace. Germany forced heavy terms of settlement of the war and then between 1918 and 1921 the then major imperialist powers supported and directly participated in a bloody civil war against the revolution. In addition they imposed an economic blockade. This forced the revolution to totally militarise on a social, political and economic level. Soviet democracy collapsed and more and more repressive measures were taken. 
Measures like forced requisitioning, nationalisation for security reasons or because of fleeing bosses, rationing and labour conscription might have been a painful necessity but they should not be confused with implementing socialism — or even implementing a transition to socialism. This was a step back forced on the revolution by its class enemies. After the civil war was won — which was heroic but very costly in lives, economic devastation and in the energy and morale of the working class and its most conscious elements — there was an attempt to pull back from “War Communism” through the New Economic Policy (NEP). But there was also a problem of a growing bureaucracy, increasingly motivated by self-interest. Between 1919 and the end of 1920 the number of officials grew from 539,841 to 5.5 million. The bureaucracy started to take over the party and found its political expression in Stalin and the bureaucratic counter-revolution he led after Lenin’s death.
This is what Lenin wrote in his last article, Better Fewer But Better (1923):
...The West-European capitalist powers, partly deliberately and partly unconsciously, did everything they could to throw us back, to utilise the elements of the Civil War in Russia in order to spread as much ruin in the country as possible... They argued somewhat as follows: "If we fail to overthrow the revolutionary system in Russia, we shall, at all events, hinder its progress towards socialism." And from their point of view they could argue in no other way. In the end, their problem was half-solved. They failed to overthrow the new system created by the revolution, but they did prevent it from at once taking the step forward that would have justified the forecasts of the socialists, that would have enabled the latter to develop the productive forces with enormous speed, to develop all the potentialities which, taken together, would have produced socialism; socialists would thus have proved to all and sundry that socialism contains within itself gigantic forces and that mankind had now entered into a new stage of development of extraordinarily brilliant prospects.
Stalin led a counter-revolution from within that built upon the post-civil war exhaustion of a mass revolutionary vanguard and the material devastation of Russia following the civil war. And, decades later, it was the Stalinist bureaucracy that spawned the capitalist class that would finally openly assume power in Russia.

Leninism and Stalinism

With the hindsight of 100 years, socialists might conclude that the Bolsheviks were so busy fighting the class enemies outside that they underestimated the danger from within. But our movement learns from hard experience or else it fails. The revolutionaries of the 21st century are sharply conscious of how precious it is to foster and protect new institutions of popular power and of the necessity of preserving and of keeping a healthy democratic culture among revolutionaries. A common argument thrown at us that the “Leninist” democratic centralist party model of the revolutionary party led to Stalinism. This is false in more than one way.
First, democratic centralism was not something invented by Lenin or the Bolsheviks but a practice developed within the Social Democratic Party in Germany and widely accepted by other socialist parties at the beginning of the 20th century. (You can read the research on this here.) Second, any serious study of the history of the Russian Revolution would show that real democratic centralism was very different to the undemocratic version promoted by Stalinism or indeed that practiced by some Trotskyist or other sects. (There are two good books of the real “Leninism” by Paul Le Blanc and Marcel Liebman on this subject that every socialist should read.) Lenin summed up democratic centralism in a 1906 debate:
In a revolutionary epoch like the present, all theoretical errors and tactical deviations of the Party are most ruthlessly criticized by experience itself, which enlightens and educates the working class with unprecedented rapidity. At such a time, the duty of every Social Democrat is to strive to ensure that the ideological struggle within the Party on questions of theory and tactics is conducted as openly, widely and freely as possible, but that on no account does it disturb or hamper the unity of revolutionary action of the Social-Democratic proletariat.... We are profoundly convinced that the workers' Social-Democratic organizations must be united, but in these united organizations, there must be wide and free discussion of Party questions, free comradely criticism and assessment of events in Party life.
The Russian revolutionaries’ party culture before its Stalinisation was consistent with this. Stalinism was not an outcome of democratic centralism but its destruction and replacement by bureaucratic centralism. Stalin also promoted a cult of Lenin (after Lenin’s death) and justified both a revision of history and theory and set it in stone as dogma. The idea of winning leadership through real struggle was replaced by the pretensions of proclaimed and even self-proclaimed vanguards.

Capitalists learn lessons too

It is not just the socialist movement that learns lessons from revolutions. The capitalist class does as well. The Russian Revolution and its reverberations really shook the world especially in the two World Wars and the period in between (which included the Great Depression). The capitalists worked hard to tame the mass parties and organisations of the working class in the most advanced countries. The gross global inequalities creates the relative privileges that aid them in this — that much even the Russian Revolutionaries were able to see from the time when the big parties of Social Democracy fell behind their respective ruling classes in WWI. But they had to do more. In the period after WWII the capitalists in the imperialist countries had to make significant economic concessions to the working class to help buy class peace. The working class was in a strong position around the world after the defeat of fascism and powerful struggles won improvements in wages, conditions and social rights. At the same time, the capitalists encouraged anti-communism in the trade union movement to weaken and isolate the socialists.
The revolutionary upheavals in the Third World kept coming in wave after wave through the second half of the last century. Indeed it is arguable that the greatest political reverberations of the Russian Revolutions were in the Third World. Near the end of his life, Lenin sensed the significance of the coming revolutions “in the East”:

In the last analysis, the outcome of the struggle will be determined by the fact that Russia, India, China, etc., account for the overwhelming majority of the population of the globe.
The revolutions in China, Vietnam and Cuba would shake the world and inspire new generations of socialists as much as the Russian Revolution did. In the name of the Cold War, propaganda and repression were the main tools used by the imperialists and their local puppets to try and keep the revolutionaries isolated in the Third World. Bloody dictators were installed, propped up, supplied with weapons and supported with direct imperialist military intervention. Where they could not stop revolutions from gaining power, they used war, blockades and low-intensity conflict to try to isolate and exhaust the revolution’s vanguard. But there was also blow-back from this. Powerful anti-war and anti-dictatorship movements grew up in response and new generations of activists were won to the socialist movement.

Capitalism can’t help itself

Cutting against all this scheming on the capitalists’ part is capitalism’s innate drive to make profits and to accumulate capital. Over the last three decades, all around the world the capitalists have been on a desperate drive to cut costs and drive down the wages and conditions of the working class. In the process, they are undoing many of the concessions to the working class made to buy the relative class peace in the post-WWII period, as Thomas Piketty has quantified in Capital In The 21st Century. Inequality is at a new record high. The eight richest men in the world own as much as the combined assets of the 3.5 billion that make up the poorest half in the world. With global inequality has come permanent war in a large part of the world: from Afghanistan to the Middle East and in many parts of Africa. Anti-capitalism and socialism are becoming more popular even in the US and the old colonial power, Britain, the places where the Thatcherite-Reaganite neoliberal offensive was kicked off. To cut capitalist costs, industries have been shifted from imperialist countries to China, India and other Third World countries where the working class has grown massively. For the first time in history, the working class has gained majority status in most countries in the world. Capitalist greed continues to threaten the very viability of human life on this planet, defying the ever more alarming warnings from scientists that it’s minutes to midnight (or even later) with catastrophic climate change. All this drives more people to a search for an alternative to the capitalist system but they still hesitate before socialism, not insignificantly, because of a long shadow cast by the eventual fate of the Russian Revolution. So much in today’s reality screams at the working people of the world: We have to take power away from these crazy, greedy capitalists before it is too late! But many of these people are hesitating at joining the revolutionary socialist movement. They agonise over questions such as: Can the working class really run society? Will it be democratic or will it inevitably become a Stalinist one-party state? Will it be an economic disaster and the lives of ordinary people set back? Socialists can reply, of course, that is not what we want. We are for a radical expansion of democracy and we must fight for it now and in the future. However, in the end, the confidence of the working class majority to rule cannot be delivered only by theory, policy or promise, it has to come through its own practice and experience in political struggle. The very fact that the Russian Revolution survived as long as it did was because large numbers of working people — a revolutionary vanguard that extended way beyond the revolutionary party’s membership — gained the confidence to not just make a revolution but to defeat the combined forces of counter-revolution backed by the most powerful imperialist countries in the world in the civil war that followed. Perhaps this should be our main take home message: In everything we do, socialists seek to involve the working class in democratically-organised mass struggle for their own emancipation and to oppose all oppressions. One hundred years ago, the Russian Revolution proved that through such patient and consistent work, the working class could come to socialist consciousness and gain the confidence to do what it previously believed to be impossible.