100th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution: The Relevance of 1917 Today
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, a decisive turning point in world history, where for the first time working people established their own system of democratic rule through the “Soviets,” literally councils of workers, soldiers and peasants. Their goal was to root out feudal and capitalist oppression and thereby help lay the basis for an egalitarian, international socialist order.
The revolution began in February with the overthrow of the Tsar. The moderate “provisional government” which was then established did not, however, proceed to take any serious measures for land reform, to end the war or to address any of the other central issues which had brought on the revolutionary upheaval. The inevitable crisis led to the rapid growth of the revolutionary Bolshevik party, rooted in the urban working-class, which promised “bread, peace and land.” In October, the Soviets led by the Bolsheviks took power, beginning of the second phase of the revolution.
The revolutionary government kept their promise of “bread, peace, and land” by withdrawing from the slaughterhouse of World War I, taking control of the banks and giving the land to the peasantry. It was the most progressive government in modern history. Through the elected soviets, workers participated in the decisions of the day. For example, it proclaimed its goal to be the liberation of women and took many concrete steps in this direction despite the challenges posed by the country’s backwardness. It was also the first in the world to strike out all laws discriminating against LGBTQ people and consensual sexual activity.
The leadership of the revolution, particularly Lenin and Trotsky, did not see the Russian Revolution as the beginning of “socialism in one country” given the country’s low level of economic development but rather the opening salvo of a world revolution. This was no pipe dream as Western capitalism was facing collapse due to the disastrous effects of the war.
The Bolsheviks launched the Communist International (Comintern) in 1919 to bring together the millions of workers and young people rallying to support the Russian Revolution and rejecting the social democratic parties who had betrayed the working class by supporting the war. In the United States, the Socialist Party which had a significant base, split with the majority of approximately 70,000 coming out in support of the Comintern and going on to create the Communist Party.
The Russian Revolution was followed by similar working class upheavals in a series of countries, most importantly Germany, over the next few years. These did not, tragically, lead to another decisive anti-capitalist breakthrough because of the lack of the type of tested and authoritative leadership provided by the Bolsheviks in Russia. If they had succeeded, humanity could have avoided many of the horrors of the 20th century, including Hitler coming to power, the Holocaust, World War II and the current carnage in the Middle East. We might be living in the beginnings of a global socialist society.
But this is not of course what happened. After several years of civil war and international encirclement and with the ebbing of the post World War I revolutionary wave in Europe, the emerging conservative bureaucracy led by Stalin, consolidated power in Russia and set out to destroy all elements of workers’ democracy.
Under Stalin, the Soviet Union continued to make economic progress, especially after World War II, but at a horrific human cost under a totalitarian dictatorship. The revolutionary leadership of the Bolshevik Party itself was almost completely liquidated, including Trotsky who fought the rise of Stalin, killed by an assassin in exile in Mexico in 1940. Tens of thousands of Trotsky’s followers wound up in Stalin’s gulag prison system.
Internationally the policy of the Soviet Union under Stalin was to use the massive authority of the Russian state in the workers movement as a bargaining chip with the main imperialist powers, including Britain, France, and the U.S. Stalin’s key goal was to keep the bureaucratic apparatus he represented in power in Russia at all costs. They were prepared to sell out other countries’ revolutionary movements to this end. Trotsky called Stalin the “organizer of defeats.” A successful workers revolution in another key country which, like 1917, would have had to be based on the workers own democratic bodies would have undermined the Stalinists’ internal narrative that they protected the people from capitalist encirclement. It would have therefore posed a potentially mortal threat to Stalin’s rule.
Trotsky and his followers consistently called for a workers’ “political revolution” to oust the Stalinists from power and return to the revolutionary road of 1917. This remained a serious possibility throughout the rule of the Stalinist regimes from the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 to the Tienanmen Square rebellion in 1989.
But to the end when Stalinism finally collapsed due to its own internal contradictions, the U.S. ruling class and ruling classes around the world remained deeply hostile to the Soviet state. This was not because they feared the Stalinist rulers but because these societies embodied an alternative, however deformed, to their system, a demonstration that capitalism can be overthrown.
Why Talk about 1917 in 2017?
It might be asked what this has to do with 21st century America, a vastly different society to Russia 1917 where the vast majority of the population were peasants tied to the land? The simple answer is the continued domination of capitalism.
As the political earthquake of 2016 demonstrated, tens of millions of people have lost all faith in the institutions of capitalism. Millions, especially young people, now express support for socialism and rallied to Bernie Sanders historic campaign. But in the absence of a left alternative in the general election, the door was opened to a grotesque right populist who presented himself as the defender of the “forgotten men and women” and went on to defeat Hillary Clinton, the candidate of the status quo.
Trump is a living embodiment of the predatory and diseased nature of this profit-driven social system which is threatens life as we know it on our planet. With less and less credibility, the billionaire class and its politicians pretend to espouse “freedom” while building a creeping surveillance state and depending on the maintenance of institutional racism and sexism to keep the working class “in its place.”
Socialist Alternative and the Committee for a Workers International, with which we are in political solidarity, will be producing extensive material to mark the anniversary. The CWI has launched a website called 1917Revolution.org.
We will carry material in each issue of our paper this year to bring out the truth about the Russian Revolution and the role of the Bolshevik Party which has been the subject ever since of a relentless campaign of distortion and disinformation by its capitalist opponents. In fact it might be said that this was the greatest “fake news” campaign of the past century. We will also bring out the massive positive impact of the Revolution in inspiring movements around the world against capitalism and colonial and racial oppression.
Opponents of the revolution say it was really a coup rather than a revolution of the masses. They state that Lenin’s regime led inevitably to Stalin’s gulag; that the Soviet experience proved that a planned economy can’t work; and that there was a “middle way” of liberal democracy which could have worked if it wasn’t for the Bolsheviks. The bottom line of all these arguments is that socialism and communism were tried and failed.
In the past, the level of anti-communist propaganda from the ruling class did have a real effect on sections of the working class in the U.S. The brutal reality of the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and subsequently in Asia were effectively used to poison the minds of many against any alternative to capitalism, the “best of all possible systems”. In the U.S., anti-communism was linked to the “American dream” that the working class would experience an ever-improving standard of living. All of this led some on the left to conclude that it was best to avoid the Russian Revolution as much as possible. This was perhaps understandable but it was ultimately impossible to avoid these questions.
Unlike 25 years ago, in the wake of the collapse of Stalinism, when it confidently proclaimed that “history was over” and that “liberal democracy” had triumphed, things stand very differently today. The American dream is officially dead. The ruling class is on the defensive, its system and institutions discredited. Millions are looking for an alternative to corporate politics and do not accept the ruling class narrative.
Perhaps the key discussion that the American left needs to engage in is what kind of political force do we need to build today to challenge capitalism. Socialist Alternative argues that establishing a broad left, anti-corporate, pro-working-class party would represent a huge step forward towards the political independence of the working class We have called this a “party of the 99%.” Such a party could not, by definition, at this stage, have a clear socialist program at its inception. It would probably be a party with a left-populist or social-democratic character which would accept the existence of capitalism while arguing to reform it. If it had a program along the lines of Bernie Sanders’, despite all the limitations, it would be an enormous step forward.
But as long as such a party did not adopt a clear anti-capitalist, socialist position, it would remain unable to answer the burning questions of our time. We believe that those committed to ending capitalism and creating a democratic socialist society must also have their own organization to make the case for such a transformation, basing itself on the lessons of the past 150 years of the workers movement. A new socialist force along these lines would seek to be part of a broader party of the 99% when it is established and to argue for a rounded out socialist program.
Looking Back and Forward
1917 was the most extensive attempt to date to permanently end the conditions which keep breeding Donald Trumps. For that reason alone, it demands careful attention from all progressive working people and youth.
The Economist magazine, a longstanding voice for global corporate interests, recently headlined “Bolshiness is Back” pointing to the collapse of the post World War II political order in Western countries and the massive upsurge against establishment politics. As they put it:
“The similarities between the collapse of the liberal order in 1917 and today are stark. They start with the fin de siècle atmosphere. The 40 years before the Russian revolution were years of liberal triumphalism. Free trade (led by the British) brought the world together. Liberal democracy triumphed in Britain and America and looked like the coming thing elsewhere. The years from 1980 were a similar period of triumphalism. Globalization (led by America) advanced relentlessly.”
As regards the current political and social crisis, The Economist points to the errors and arrogance of the liberal political elite in helping create Brexit and Trump but more fundamentally they argue,
“The liberal order itself is also to blame. The global economy has delivered too many of its benefits to the richest: in America, the proportion of after-tax income going to the top 1% doubled.”
They are right. The question is as Lenin said long ago: “What is to be done?” Despite the many differences between 1917 and now, we say humanity needs to change course and return along the path that the workers of Petrograd began laying out 100 years ago.