Red October in retrospect

With the October Revolution, the locus of the revolutionary dynamic began to shift towards the East and more generally towards lands that were struggling against imperialism. This symbiosis between communism and anti-imperialism may well turn out to be the more lasting legacy of Red October.

Published : Dec 06, 2017 12:30 IST

October 26, 1917:   Lenin addressing workers at Red Square, Moscow.

October 26, 1917: Lenin addressing workers at Red Square, Moscow.

[ In this article we shall reflect not on what came after Red October, a vast subject in itself, but on the lasting global significance of that revolution, the process that led to it and the kind of state and society the makers of the revolution, most notably Lenin himself, expected to arise out of the revolution. All dates will be given in accordance with the Julian calendar that was used in Russia until well after the revolution. The Julian calendar runs 13 days behind the much more commonly used Gregorian calendar. For instance, the Russian working class women’s march that initiated the revolutionary dynamic of 1917 occurred on International Women’s Day, which is March 8 according to the Gregorian calendar but February 23 on the Julian calendar. Hence the designation: February Revolution. ]

The Great Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 was by no means simply a “Russian” revolution. Rather, it was a watershed event and a turning point in universal human history. This revolution came after a whole chain of revolutions that broke out in Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789, but it was the first that envisioned the end not only of the rule of capital but of private property altogether, thus of all class society as such. In his seminal writings of March-April 1917, Lenin in fact envisions an immediate “withering away of the state” (“abolition of Army, police and the bureaucracy”, as he put it, and distribution of these functions among some two million people). This was the most far-reaching project that any revolution had ever set for itself.

When the 300-year-old tsarist monarchy collapsed in February 1917, most of the Russian Left, including the majority of the Bolsheviks, sought to stabilise a Western-style bourgeois democracy in their country. By contrast, Lenin argued in favour of mobilising workers and peasants towards an immediate socialist revolution that would be “the prologue to the coming European revolution”. Similarly, his vivid image of Russia as “the weakest link” in the imperialist chain illustrated the strategic conception that if a revolution could break that weakest link, the whole chain would come undone. In this sense, the Bolshevik Revolution not only had a European dimension but was to serve as a force that would detonate a worldwide crisis of colonialism and imperialism as such.

Two great forces of emancipation were fundamental to the unfolding of history in the 20th century: the struggle to transcend capitalism towards a socialist future, and the struggle to dismantle the global colonial system that capital had spawned. Capitalism itself had of course become a global system by the dawn of the century. The virtual identity of capital and colony can be surmised from the fact that by 1914, colonial powers, their colonies and the ex-colonies (in the Americas) covered 85 per cent of the globe’s surface. The Bolshevik project was aimed at the destruction of this whole system—both sides of it, colonial and capitalist—not at transforming Russia per se .

Russia itself was not only a tsarist state. It was also a vast colonial empire. Unlike Britain or France, Russia was not strong enough to acquire colonies far from its frontiers. Its Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim, colonies were very recent acquisitions, and all the territories it conquered in Europe as well as Asia were contiguous with Russian territory. The 20th century history of the dissolution of colonial empires begins not in British or French colonies but with the Bolshevik Revolution, which immediately liberated the tsarist colonies and turned them into autonomous, largely self-governing republics in a larger, multinational system of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Russian colonies were the first in history to make a direct transition from colonial subjection to socialist liberation. It is also well to remember that Lenin’s famous theses on the colonial and national questions were first formulated in relation to those very Russian colonies and only subsequently extended and developed for application elsewhere. Thanks to the very nature of that revolution, Bolsheviks, and the communists who are descended from that particular tradition, have always highlighted this intrinsic relationship between class and empire as well as the overlap between the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist nationalisms and the socialist revolution as such. That side of the Bolshevik Revolution has had a particular resonance in the Tricontinent (the term I prefer to “Third World” and the newly fashionable “Global South”).

Peasantry makes its own history

The Bolshevik Revolution was the great historic event with which the peasantry first emerged as the maker of its own history. Peasant agitations and rebellions were widespread during the French Revolution as well. However, they could never emerge from under the weight of the urban middle classes and the Paris proletariat, the leading forces of the revolution. The defeat of the old regime and the dissolution of numerous estates of the great landowning families in France did benefit the peasantry, but their own independent initiatives were by and large ignored and even suppressed. In the Bolshevik Revolution, by contrast, even the theoretical preparation for the revolution envisioned a worker-peasant alliance as the leading force in the revolution. During the actual execution for the revolution, the vast number of soldiers—peasants in uniform, as Lenin called them—served as the practical link and as the cement of a social bond between the workers and revolutionary intellectuals who were largely concentrated in the larger cities (mainly St. Petersburg and Moscow) and the peasantry spread out in the vast agrarian hinterland. In all socialist revolutions that were to follow the Bolshevik one—from China through Vietnam and Cuba to Guinea-Bissau and beyond—two questions remained constant: the national/colonial question and the peasant question.

This was a great shift and an advance in Marxist thinking itself. So long as Marxist theoretical labour remained confined to Europe’s industrialised heartlands—Germany, Britain, France for the most part—revolutionary theory was based on a virtually exclusive emphasis on the industrial working class as the sole “gravedigger” of capitalism. As soon as theory itself moved from those heartlands into a semi-industrialised, largely agrarian society like Russia, with its own very formidable but non-Marxist traditions of agrarian radicalism, Marxist theory itself had to rethink the question of the peasantry in a new way.

With the outbreak of the First World War, millions of youths from among that peasantry had been recruited into the army and sent, ill-equipped and tardily trained, to the battlefield. A much earlier, much more settled peasant discontent was now mixed in their hearts with rage against the rulers who had sent them to die in battles they had no reason to fight. Could this rage among the mass of the peasants-in-uniform be organised and directed into a revolution? That was the question Lenin posed to his comrades, and demands for land and peace were for that reason adopted among the central slogans for the revolution. The unique novelty of the Bolshevik Revolution extended the depth and reach of Marxist theory itself, as it became the concrete theory of a practice that produced the first socialist revolution in human history. First, but not the last.

Two segments of Russia

Russia is a vast country that traverses two continents. Its great cities, its centres of political and financial power, most of its industry, its bourgeoisie and its working class were located in Europe—the far eastern part of Europe. The bulk of its peasantry and its colonies were in Asia. Lenin and his comrades had to devise a strategy appropriate for both segments of their country. Some of the great originality of that revolution stems from that fact. Never in the history of European social democracy had there been such an emphasis on the liberation of the colonies as an imminent socialist task, never such a view of the peasantry as a potentially revolutionary class. Only in Russia, part-European and part-Asian, could this be thought of credibly and consistently. Most people of Western Europe, including many of its social democrats, held Russia in different degrees of contempt as Asiatic, semi-Asiatic, and so on. Most of those European Social Democrats who failed to make a revolution, who actively colluded in suppressing the German Revolution, and who eventually became part of the global anti-communist bloc, concluded that the Bolshevik Revolution was going to fail because it was not European, not “advanced”.

It was one of the great turning points in history. After the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and especially after the defeat of the very short-lived revolutionary upsurge in countries like Germany, Austria, Italy and Hungary, the centre of gravity for Marxist revolutionary practice kept shifting away from Europe and increasingly into the “East”—towards Asia, towards the Tricontinent—even as the dark night of fascism and Nazism enveloped much of Europe. The murder of Rosa Luxemburg at the hands of fascist goons hired by the social democratic government of Weimar Germany, on January 15, 1919, was a good index of things to come. Even after the Second World War, West European intellectuals were to produce Marxist theory of great merit in areas ranging from political economy to philosophy to literary theory, but the possibility of a socialist revolution was no longer on the horizon. Social democratic governments, of which there have been legion, stayed anchored in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the Trilateral Commission, and so on, on the side of imperialism.

Promises of the past

That is one way of looking back at October 1917: as a moment of absolute novelty, a new beginning. One could also think of it as the moment when so many promises of the past were sought to be redeemed. Marx and Lenin were deeply aware of the rich revolutionary tradition that dated back to the French Revolution and which included a powerful communist tendency represented specifically by “the Conspiracy of Equals”, an organisation led by Gracchus Babeuf, but more broadly by the Jacobins who had five lakh members. Lenin himself thought that the Bolshevik Revolution was an expression of the same dynamic that produced the Paris Commune in 1871 as well as the Russian revolutions of 1905 and February 1917. Some 40,000 Communards had lost their lives in the service of that experiment in Liberty which became for Lenin such a model (or “prototype” as he called it) that he used the term “the Commune state” for the political form he envisioned for the revolutionary reorganisation of power that would emerge after the revolution: a profoundly, radically democratic form but not a liberal democratic one.

Alexander Herzen—a well-known member of the Russian intelligentsia brought up on the legacy of French politics, German philosophy and Russian literature—said presciently in the early 1850s, well before serfdom was abolished: “The man of the future in Russia is the peasant.” At about the same time, defeat in the Crimean War created a crisis of self-confidence in the old aristocracy, the beneficiary of serfdom, which began clamouring for reform, modernisation, industrialisation, catching up with the West. The abolition of serfdom in 1861 was part of that reform and catching up. But the abolition was half-hearted. The old feudal lords retained over half of the lands, especially the most fertile parts, and now became private landowners. Most of the land was transferred not to peasants but to communes (the Mir, an old Russian institution). About 15 per cent of the land was distributed among 40 per cent of the “liberated” serfs; most plots were too small for family survival on the meagre produce and for this they had to pay in instalments over 49 years (these instalments were abolished in the wake of the 1905 revolution). Moreover, it was the peasantry that supplied its sons for recruitment in the vast imperial army. Through much of the later decades of the 19th century, Russia produced a very large radical intelligentsia, but few of them paid much attention to the working classes in the cities; most came to be known as Populists (Narodniki, from “narod” the Russian word for “people”), but those too were divided into many groups, a good number tending towards anarchism and revolutionary terrorism. The tsar who was proud of having abolished serfdom was himself killed in a spectacular show of terror (“propaganda of the deed” as 19th century revolutionary terrorists would call it). Georgi Plekhanov, who was to become very famous later on, joined up with Vera Zasulich, one of those would-be revolutionary assassins (and famous for her beauty as well), to form the first Marxist group in Russia, in 1882. However, a formal Marxist political party—the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP)—was formed as late as 1898, only to split five years later, in 1903, into two permanently irreconcilable factions, the Mensheviks (minority) and the Bolsheviks (majority), which gained these names from the fact that at the precise moment when the decisive vote was taken at the second party congress (in London, with 51 delegates) some members of Martov’s group were absent and Lenin’s group commanded a momentary majority.

Not that Marx was not quite well known among the radical and activist sections of the Russian intelligentsia. Some were directly in touch with him. The paramount question they had put to Marx was this: Can the traditional Russian commune become the basis for making a revolution and organising a socialist society? Marx hesitated a long time and got himself immersed for years in studying Russian history and economy. At some point in the course of that study, he gave a conditional reply: yes, a transition to socialism without passing through a capitalist phase was conceivable but only if the European proletariat came to the aid of such a revolution in Russia. Two facts related to this issue are notable. First, the great majority of Russian communists, including the majority of the Bolsheviks, continued nevertheless to believe that passing through a capitalist phase—not only in the economy but also by way of creating a stable parliamentary liberal democracy—was essential before transition to socialism (the famous theory of stages). Lenin was always in acute minority on that question, until just a couple of months before October. He believed that a primary duty of a revolutionary party was to try and turn every bourgeois crisis into a revolutionary crisis, and that any liberal democratic phase would turn out to be a useless phase for workers and peasants. Second, however, Lenin thought that revolutionary forces could take power in Russia if conditions for such a seizure became ripe but that they would not be able to build a reasonably socialist society in Russia unless successful revolutions occurred in other European countries more or less simultaneously. In this Marx and Lenin were agreed: the Russian Revolution would need support from the more advanced proletariat of Europe. Lenin, however, was confident that the First World War had unleashed such a great European crisis that many countries there, Germany in particular, would experience a successful revolution. Hence his hope, formulated as a prediction, that the Russian Revolution was a mere prologue to the great European revolutions. That hope was of course dashed. What succeeded in post-war Europe, in Germany itself, was not revolutionary Marxism but fascism. Subsequent history was made as much by the one successful revolution as by the many unsuccessful ones. It was only in the aftermath of all those failures of the revolution in the rest of Europe that Nikolai Bukharin, speaking for Stalin and others in the Soviet government, eventually arose to present a new theory: the theory of “Socialism in One Country”.

Rise of a new capitalist class

Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War created the multifaceted crisis that led to the abolition of serfdom, break-neck modernisation and industrialisation, with capital largely from France and Britain, the victorious adversaries. A new capitalist class arose gradually, with a subordinate share in industry and finance, alongside a new landlord class with private ownership of land, many of whom wanted to organise mechanised agriculture. By the end of the century, in 1899, Lenin published his book The Development of Capitalism in Russia to argue that the country had undergone a transformation extensive enough to have produced conditions for a proletarian revolution in alliance with the peasantry, which had itself experienced great changes since the days of serfdom. But how do you make a modern revolution largely based on the organised urban middle class in conditions of tsarist autocracies and a bourgeoisie with no liberal political commitments and with clientelist relations with that autocracy? That question produced the first great classic of the Bolshevik tradition, in 1902: What is to be Done? (Lenin of course borrowed that title from the celebrated 1863 novel of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, the famous philosopher and literary critic, which had an electrifying impact on the Russian youth of its day.)

The tsarist regime meanwhile was drawing up other plans, to acquire even more colonial territories farther into the east, perhaps in the Korean Peninsula, perhaps Outer Mongolia, perhaps even Manchuria. In this, the regime was clearly trespassing into what Japan considered its own area of extraterritorial ambition and influence. Contemptuous of Japan as an inferior race, ignorant of its own military inferiority and wilfully discounting the difficulty of supplying its armies across such great distances, the tsarist government launched a war against Japan in 1904. Defeat followed defeat at the front; social and economic crises got compounded at home. By January 1905 a strike wave began to envelope first in the industrial cities and then in large swathes of the empire. A novelty: women began to mobilise on their own and in large numbers, and strikes spread from the workers to various sections of the lower middle classes, the professional petty bourgeoisie in particular. But also a great difference from what would happen in 1917: except for some sporadic disturbances, the peasantry remained largely distant from the urban upheavals and, despite the carnage of the war and the wave of defeats, the soldiery remained by and large loyal to the regime. By contrast, the militancy of the working class was historic: half the proletariat in European Russia, where industry was concentrated, went on strike at one time or the other during the year, and the pace of unionisation was spectacular.

The Bolsheviks were at the time too few and too inexperienced, with no mass work among the soldiery and with shallow roots among the peasantry itself, altogether too new as a revolutionary party. Lenin himself thought and wrote copiously on the events of 1905, some 400 pages in all. He concluded that the proletariat had emerged as the decisive revolutionary class in Russia, capable of leading other oppressed classes and uniting the masses, including the peasant masses, under its own leadership. He further concluded that the idea of the Russian bourgeoisie ever confronting the tsarist autocracy or the more advanced capitalist classes of Western Europe was ill-founded, which meant that the Menshevik hope for an independent, coherent liberal bourgeois republic was a chimera; any future revolution would have to proceed directly in a socialist direction. He also came to believe that the balance of class forces had shifted decisively enough; the revolution of 1905 failed mainly because there was no revolutionary vanguard to guide the working class as a whole and to prepare for an effective and active worker-peasant alliance. In short, some of the contours of the policy he would follow in 1917 arose out of his reflections on 1905.

Breaking with Mensheviks & the International

Over the next decade the Bolsheviks became a larger, more cohesive, better-trained force with enormous experience in underground work, among the working class in particular and among other social strata more generally. A full break with the Mensheviks came in 1912. When various member parties of the Second International supported the governments of their own countries as the First World War broke out, Lenin led the Bolsheviks out of the International as well. He called it an “inter-imperialist war” for redivision of colonies among them, at the cost of millions of lives; six million dead in the course of that war, as it turned out. Supporting such a war was simply criminal, particularly for political parties that continued to call themselves “socialist” and claimed to be “revolutionary”. Working with such parties was impossible. The Bolsheviks had to break with them and concentrate on making a revolution where they themselves were. In all this, Lenin was undoubtedly correct and loyal to a revolutionary ethos. However, it was also a fact that by the time the revolutionary possibility emerged in Russia, the Bolsheviks were almost entirely isolated from other socialist currents inside Russia as well as internationally. Lenin would have never been able to lead his party to make a successful, historically unparalleled revolution without abandoning those alliances. It is also true, however, that such isolation and so complete a lack of external support had its lasting and unbearable consequences.

Lenin kept hoping that the October Revolution, combined with conditions of crisis unleashed by the war, would ignite revolutionary fires across Europe. But who, precisely, was going to lead those revolutions? All the socialist and social democratic parties in Europe had already aligned themselves with the bourgeoisies of their respective countries. The communists left in virtually all those countries were comparatively very small and were targeted not only by the bourgeoisie but by social democrats as well. The Italian Communist party of Gramsci and Bordiga was founded as late as January 1921, barely 18 months before Benito Mussolini led the March on Rome that initiated the era of fascist ascendancy. In Germany, where the social democratic party had denounced the October Revolution as soon as it occurred, that very party emerged as the ruling party soon after the war ended. It supervised the murder of Rosa Luxemburg in January 1919, soon after she had converted her Spartacus League into the German Communist Party the previous year. Lenin’s hope that “European revolutions” would play a supporting and stabilising role for the October Revolution were really pinned on Germany. In the event, the hope proved to be illusory and groundless, a rare instance of Lenin making a great error of judgement.


Women’s march

The first instalment of the 1917 revolution came in late February with a massive women’s march that took up the question of the scarcity of bread and proceeded to factories and exhorted the workers to come out and join them. Strikes had already begun the previous year, and now they spread like wildfire. There were now two main demands: bread and peace. The decisive moment came quickly, on February 25-27 when soldiers who were ordered to fire at the protesters fired at the police and joined the striking workers. After that, most of the capital, including bridges, arsenals and railway stations, passed into the hands of the workers. The workers established Soviets, the agitation spread into other cities and impressive parts of the countryside, and a very broad alliance of workers and soldiers began to take shape. This included the disobeying soldiers presumed to be on duty in the cities as well as those drawn from among the hundreds of thousands who quit the battlefields and deserted from the army. By mid March, the tsar had abdicated, the 300-hundred-year-old Romanov rule had ended and a makeshift Provisional Government was in place.


April Theses

Lenin followed these events from his exile in Zurich with mounting alarm. He first sent his famous three “Letters from Afar” for publication in the party organ Pravda and then delivered his even more famous “April Theses” upon arrival from his exile, which contained a radical refutation of the developing consensus in favour of the Provisional Government and moving on to establish a liberal democratic republic. So radically different was his standpoint that his colleagues were aghast and even Nadezhda Krupskaya, his wife and close comrade, thought he had gone temporarily mad. He had been the founding leader of the Bolsheviks, but he was so isolated at this juncture in his party that he presented his Theses as a “personal” statement.

I have put together the following summary of his argument in March-April 1917, giving just the gist on most points but also directly quoting in other instances:

1. The February Revolution was directly engendered by the imperialist powers.

2. The monarchy fell so quickly partly because the British and French capitalists conspired with the weak Russian bourgeoisie, its representatives in the Duma as well as a section of generals and military officers to overthrow the tsar and contain the ongoing revolution within the liberal, constitutional confines of a bourgeois democracy and a handful of cosmetic reforms to assuage some of the popular discontent.

3. The proletariat had matured during the 1905-7 revolution and was now ready to take up its leading role in the transition from the first to the second, proletarian phase of the revolution.

4. In advocating a stable bourgeois democratic phase of the revolution before any advance towards a socialist revolution, the Mensheviks, the SRs, etc., were acting objectively as allies and servants of this combination of domestic and foreign capital. No unity with them was possible.

5. The Provisional Government was going to do its best to take immediate control of the army and the bureaucracy and to dominate all levels of government from the central to the local. If allowed to continue, it would become far more powerful than the embryonic workers’ government that existed in the shape of the Petrograd Soviet and would eventually devour the Soviet.

6. The Provisional Government could not end the war because it was dependent on the more advanced capitalist classes of Britain and France and shared the aims for which the war was launched in the first place.

7. Two slogans were imperative. “All power to the Soviets” and “Peace, Bread and Freedom”.

8. The objectives of the proletarian revolution would include “.... the formation of a militia embracing the entire people and led by the workers... [which] must be a mass organisation to the degree of being universal, must really embrace the entire able-bodied population of both sexes; secondly it must proceed to combine not only purely police, but general state functions with military functions and with the control of social production and distribution”;

“Not a parliamentary republic ... but a republic of Soviets and Workers’, Agricultural Labourers’, Peasants’ Deputies throughout the country”

—“Abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy.”

—“Confiscation of all landed estates.”

—“A Commune state” (Lenin added in a footnote”, “i.e., a state for which the Paris Commune was the prototype”.)

The first seven points in this summary were scandalous enough in the sense that they ran counter to positions held by most of his own closest colleagues, let alone the adversaries. But the eighth point, which summarises, with direct quotations, Lenin’s vision of the kind of polity he envisioned after the revolution, was simply explosive (no army, no bureaucracy, a fully armed population).


Away from Europe

One could plausibly argue that the utter failure of the European revolutions pushed Lenin and his colleagues to at least wonder if the real, long-term allies of the Bolsheviks might be found not in the European working classes but in the anti-imperialist movements in the colonised countries and especially in those national liberation movements that were led by communists and their allies. In short, the reorientation away from “Backward Europe” towards “Advanced Asia”, as one of Lenin’s own pamphlets put it. No wonder that the next great break in the imperialist chain came not in super-industrialised Germany but in predominantly agrarian China, in a revolution that retreated from the cities, developed revolutionary capacities and a liberation army in rural hinterlands and achieved final success only when a very original kind of communist practice got fully grounded in the peasant question and the anti-imperialist national question; Chiang’s self-styled “Nationalists” lost to Mao Zedong’s communists during the anti-Japanese resistance on the ground of nationalism itself.

Whatever one might say of many negative aspects of the subsequent evolution of the Soviet Union, the one thing that remained constant was the concrete material Soviet support for virtually every national liberation movement in all parts of the Tricontinent. This support was provided also to those regimes of the national bourgeoisie in the Non-Aligned Movement, such as those of Jawaharlal Nehru’s India and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, which sought to stay free of imperialist domination in their pursuit of an independent path of development. This mutual empathy was itself grounded in the fact that imperialism has been as hostile to economic nationalism in countries of the Tricontinent as it was to communism itself.

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