A new epoch

Print edition : December 22, 2017

FEBRUARY 23, 1917: A Bolshevik demonstration in the streets of Petrograd when the Kornilov uprising threatened the Provisional Government and Alexander Kerensky, its leader, was away on the Galician Front visiting troops. Photo: PA Images via Getty Images

Kerensky, one of the prominent leaders of the February Revolution, addressing troops at the war front in May 1917.

The Committee of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies meeting in the new Soviet in St. Petersburg immediately after the Russian revolution. Photo: Getty Images

Representatives of all Soviet nationalities at Red Square, Moscow. It was the Bolsheviks who first advocated the right of self-determination for all nationalities as part of the struggle to overthrow tsarism.

The October Revolution had a universal significance. For the first time, socialism came on the agenda of world history as a concrete alternative to capitalism.

THE Russian Revolution of October 1917 was a momentous event that marked a new epoch for the world. The centenary of the October Revolution enables us to look back across the course of the entire 20th century and come to a judgment about its historic significance and contemporary relevance.

The Russian Revolution was the first one in human history in which the exploited classes overthrew and established a state that was not run by the exploiting classes. For the first time, socialism came on the agenda of world history as a concrete alternative to capitalism. It is this character of the October Revolution that has a lasting relevance in the contemporary world.

The October Revolution was not just a revolution against tsarist autocracy. It heralded a new type of revolution, which was anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist and socialist in character. This had a universal significance. Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not see the revolution in Russia in purely “national” terms but as the precursor of a world socialist revolution.

The October Revolution cannot be understood if it is divorced from the context of imperialism. The original and the most important contribution of Lenin lay in developing the Marxist understanding of imperialism and making it part of the revolutionary strategy. While Marx foresaw capitalism developing as a worldwide system, it was only after his death that capitalism grew to the stage of monopoly capitalism. Lenin’s superior grasp of Marxist method enabled him to see how imperialism developed as a worldwide system owing to the inherent requirement of monopoly capitalism, and he related it to the concrete strategy and tactics of the world proletarian revolution.

Lenin, with his profound understanding of imperialism, was the first to break away from the conventional Marxist understanding that a socialist revolution is possible only in those societies that had undergone the full-fledged development of capitalism. Lenin noted that uneven development of capitalism during the stage of imperialism would create the possibility of a socialist revolution becoming successful in a country even though it may be backward in terms of capitalist development. With imperialism, the entire world was brought under the purview of the world capitalist system and the weakest link in the chain could be broken. It was Lenin who first pointed out that tsarist Russia represented the weakest link after the advent of the First World War, which was itself a product of inter-imperialist rivalries.

Socialist stage

The second important link in the strategy of the October Revolution was the understanding that the bourgeois democratic revolution could be carried forward under the leadership of the working class to a socialist revolution. It was Lenin who first advocated the necessity for the working class to take the leadership of the democratic revolution in order to see that there was an uninterrupted transition to the socialist stage.

As Lenin put it, there is no Chinese wall between the completion of the bourgeois democratic revolution and the socialist revolution. It was this understanding adopted by the Bolshevik Party that enabled it to go ahead to strive for a socialist revolution after the February revolution, which overthrew tsarism. Lenin, in his famous April Theses after returning to Russia from exile, argued that the February revolution marked the completion of the bourgeois democratic stage. The working class should not accept the bourgeois regime installed after the revolution and should go forward to organise the working class and the peasantry to capture state power to pave the way for the socialist stage.

Flowing from this creative strategy of the working class taking the leadership to complete the task of the bourgeois democratic revolution and passing on to the socialist stage, the Bolshevik Party adopted two important strategic tasks: the agrarian programme and the national programme.

The agrarian programme

The agrarian programme was based on the strategy of the worker-peasant alliance. It is by raising the basic slogan of abolition of landlordism that the vast mass of the Russian peasantry could be mobilised alongside workers. In a semi-feudal country developing capitalism, Lenin based the revolutionary strategy on the worker-peasant alliance. After the February bourgeois democratic revolution, the Bolsheviks advocated the abolition of landlordism and giving land to the tiller. The slogans of the October Revolution reflected this—“Peace, Land and Bread”. It was the resolute programme of the Bolsheviks to put an end to the landlord system and break up big estates that rallied the peasantry to the revolutionary cause and made the worker-peasant alliance a reality by the time the October Revolution took place. Until the February revolution, the Bolshevik Party had been mainly a party based on industrial workers and the growing number of disaffected soldiers in the tsarist army. The soldiers, whom Lenin called “peasants in uniform”, took the Bolshevik message of land to the tiller to the mass of the peasantry when they deserted the army in large numbers and went back to the villages.

The national question

Tsarist Russia was a vast multinational empire. It had over a hundred nationalities yoked together by the tsarist autocracy. The national question was a major issue for all those who suffered national oppression under the tsarist empire. It was the Bolsheviks who first advocated the right of self-determination for all nationalities as part of the struggle to overthrow tsarism. Lenin set out the basic task on the national question as: “Complete freedom of secession, the broadest local and (national) autonomy, and elaborate guidelines for the rights of national minorities—this is the programme of the revolutionary proletariat.” The success of the October Revolution was also due to the tactics adopted by the Bolsheviks before and after the October Revolution in ensuring that the rights of the various nationalities were assured. The union of these various nationalities led to the foundation of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics.

The strategic understanding that underpinned the national question was not confined to Russia. It is the same approach that was spelt out by Lenin later on the national and colonial question in 1920 in the Communist International. The October Revolution blazed a new path in integrating the national and colonial question with the strategy and tactics of world revolution.

State and revolution

The October Revolution focussed on the capture of state power as a central issue. In State and Revolution, written on the eve of the October Revolution, Lenin stressed the necessity for the working class to overthrow the state controlled by the ruling classes and create a new state. Proceeding from Marx’s analysis of the Paris Commune of 1871, Lenin made the capture of state power central to the revolution. It is by this bold theory that he broke with social democracy, which confined itself to advocating reforms within the capitalist system.

Impact worldwide

The beginning of the 20th century was still the age of empires at the height of their imperial power. The British, German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Japanese empires dominated and divided the world. There were lesser empires, too—Italian, Portuguese, and so on. The October Revolution heralded the end of this old style of colonialism. Within 50 years of the overthrow of the tsarist empire, there was hardly an empire left on the face of the earth.

The message of the October Revolution and the revolutionary strategy of the worker-peasant alliance it put forth became a powerful impetus for the national liberation struggles in the colonies and semi-colonies. The national liberation movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America drew inspiration from the revolution in Russia, and the new Soviet state lent its full support to the anti-imperialist struggles of the peoples of the colonies. In India, too, the worker-peasant revolution in Russia had a big impact on the freedom fighters within the Indian National Congress and the revolutionary groups.

The October Revolution had a powerful impact on the movement for democracy. Fascism was the biggest enemy of democracy and in the struggle against fascism the greatest sacrifices were made by the Soviet Union and the socialist forces worldwide. Twenty-six million soldiers and citizens of the Soviet Union laid down their lives in the life-and-death struggle against Nazism.

In the Western capitalist states, which practised parliamentary democracy but protected economic autocracies, the working class movement fought and wrested important gains inspired by the socialist system existing in the Soviet Union. It was the pressure of the example of the Soviet Union that led to the introduction of the welfare system with employment, health and pension benefits for workers in Western Europe.

Finally, the October Revolution became the progenitor of the revolutionary working class movements and the Communist parties around the world. It provided the ideological underpinning for the strategy and tactics that resulted in successful revolutions in China, Vietnam and Korea in Asia and later Cuba in the Western hemisphere.

A hundred years after 1917, there are continuing efforts to denigrate the October Revolution. There has been a flood of writings characterising it as a putsch or a coup and as a prelude to terror and the establishment of a totalitarian state. All these charges have been made on the occasion of the centenary. In an editorial on November 7, The Guardian declared that the system did not work. Why is there such a concerted effort to distort the nature of the October Revolution? It is precisely because it still has a startling relevance. At a time when neoliberal capitalism is in crisis, when imperialism continues to exercise its hegemony, when global levels of inequality have surpassed all previous records, and the world is faced with an environmental disaster due to rapacious capitalism, the October Revolution heralds the message that this need not be so and that there is an alternative—socialism.

It does not need stating that a revolution like the October Revolution will not repeat itself. But a century later, given the experience of the subsequent revolutions in the 20th century, it would be true to say that future revolutions will have to build on the essential elements that constituted Red October: the power of the ordinary people, workers, peasants and soldiers who took their destiny into their hands.