Impact of Red October

Print edition : January 31, 2020

March 8, 1917: Textile workers marching towards the town hall demanding an increase in bread rations for soldiers' families in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). This event paved the way for massive protests which later resulted in the October Revolution. Photo: Getty Images

This book shows both how the October Revolution inspired working classes globally and how the communist movement shaped the anti-colonial struggle in the Third World.

In this short but timely monograph, Vijay Prashad examines the impact of the October Revolution on the Third World. He states that the book is not a comprehensive study but provides an insight into the significance of the revolution for the working classes and the peasantry living under colonial domination.

Chapters 1 and 2, titled “Eastern Graves” and “Red October” respectively, examine Lenin’s views on communism and provide an overview of how the Bolsheviks came to power. Based on Lenin’s writings, the chapters show how the October Revolution transferred power to the hands of the working class and the peasantry, and how the oppressed masses were able to develop administrative structures that provided the foundation for the Soviet organisation.

Chapters 3, 4, 5 and 6 investigate how the October Revolution influenced the people of the Third World. Vijay Prashad successfully connects a strike organised by workers in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1908 to a peasant revolution in Mexico in 1911 under the leadership of Emiliano Zapata. On both occasions, workers were fighting to change the unbearable working conditions introduced by imperial rule. Thus, the October Revolution inspired several anti-imperial uprisings, including the one in Egypt led by Saad Zaghloul Pasha and the May Fourth Movement in China.

Vijay Prashad shows that the literary and cultural spheres of the Third World were also influenced by the October Revolution. For example, artists such as Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siquerios depicted through their paintings the struggle faced by peasants in Mexico and how they brought about a revolutionary change. In India, the revolutionary poet Nazrul Islam, whose outlook was a combination of radical nationalism, anarchism and nationalism, was influenced by the October Revolution. However, the author does not address this in detail.

Vijay Prashad also discusses other revolutionary artists from China to Chile who were influenced by the October Revolution and found new ways to depict the lives of workers and peasants oppressed by either colonial domination or old aristocrats. The author argues that the October Revolution and the communist movement appealed to people because both pledged to end imperial rule and class domination. To illustrate this point, he uses several examples from M.N. Roy to Dada Amir Haider Khan and Ho Chi Minh. Ho Chi Minh worked in hotels in France and the United States before becoming the founder of the French Communist Party. He studied at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV) and returned to Vietnam to start the revolution.

Similarly, several Indian muhajirs who went to Istanbul to protect the Caliphate of the Ottoman Empire also turned to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). An early communist leader from India, Muzaffar Ahmad, indicated that 17 of these muhajirs went to the KUTV where they were influenced by the communist movement. They established a link between communism and pan-Islamism.

However, while the author seems to give the impression that Muzaffar Ahmad himself went to Central Asia and returned as a communist, this was not the case. Ahmad wrote about the muhajirs and was transformed from a radical journalist to an early communist, as indicated by Suchetana Chattopadhyay in her book An Early Communist.

The author briefly describes how the October Revolution influenced the women’s movement. On March 8, 1927, Zhenotdel activists came out on to the streets of major Uzbek cities and fought for women’s liberation.

The revolution also improved women’s literacy in Central Asia from almost nil in 1917 to 99 per cent in 1970. Moreover, communist women outside the USSR also fought for women’s liberation and shaped the world of the women’s communist movement.

Finally, the author shows how the communist movement was part of the anti-colonial struggle in Third World countries. Despite sanctions, Fidel Castro was able to diversify sugarcane production and improve the lives of the people of Cuba. Also, the USSR trained 3,000 Cubans in agronomy and 900 Cubans as engineers. The Third World acknowledged the significance of the USSR, and communism became a dynamic movement of social change. The growth of the Indonesian Communist Party, the largest outside the Socialist Bloc, could only be halted through a genocidal coup by the Indonesian military establishment, aided by the Western powers, in 1965.

Throughout the book, Vijay Prashad persuasively links the communist movement to the anti-colonial struggle in Third World countries. The USSR and the communist organisations supported the fight of the colonised subject-peoples from the Caribbean to South-East Asia against the British, Dutch, and French colonial empires. In other words, communism in Third World countries originated from and was inextricably linked to people’s movements for self-liberation. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the Communist Parties of the Third World acknowledged the importance of the USSR and how it mobilised people against fascism.

However, Vijay Prashad acknowledges that anti-colonial movements linked to communism also failed on several occasions as they had to struggle with immense repression in the face of imperial domination.

By discussing the impact of the October Revolution on the Third World, Vijay Prashad acknowledges the limitations of the USSR and how it did not enhance the “democratic aspirations of the people”. Rather, bureaucracy and stagnation bolstered the divisions and contradictions within it.

Moreover, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, social wealth gave rise to a capitalist oligarchy. Third World countries were hit hard. The USSR disengaged from Afghanistan, Nicaragua and Angola. Countries such as India surrendered to the International Monetary Fund, which led to political and religious violence.

The book provides a nuanced understanding of socialist democracy and culture. Vijay Prashad’s prose is poetic and absorbing. The book, by combining the author’s own personal involvement with the communist movement in Calcutta (now Kolkata) with rewarding insights, gives hope to those engaged in the fight against the autocratic fascist governments that have developed in the Global South with the generous assistance of Western liberal imperialism. This writer looks forward to reading a detailed monograph from Vijay Prashad on this topic in the future, which connects the October Revolution to people’s movements in the Third World.

Nilanjana Paul is Assistant Professor, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

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