In a world dominated by billionaires and big business, with widespread poverty, racism, sexism and environmental destruction, the question of who runs society is a vital one.
One hundred years ago, in October 1917 in Russia, that question was answered decisively when ordinary working people took power and held onto it for the first time in history.
Beginning in the nation’s capital of Petrograd on October 24 (November 6 by our calendar), and then spreading city by city across the former Czarist empire, workers and peasants took over the factories, government offices and soldiers’ barracks in the most powerful democratic act in human history.
In doing so, unprecedented gains were won for workers, peasants, women, LGBTQ people, and oppressed nationalities. This socially and economically backward country became the first to decriminalize same-sex relationships, make abortion both legal and free, provide the right to a job, give the full right of oppressed nationalities to self determination, and bring large sections of the economy into democratic public ownership to be run by the workers themselves.
Today with global capitalism in a prolonged crisis and a huge growth in interest in socialist ideas, particularly among young people, these experiences of the Russian working class are more relevant than ever.
How Can We Win Fundamental Change?
The world is wracked by social crisis. Capitalism has failed to fully recover from the Great Recession and even in the United States – the richest country in human history – inequality grows apace while workers face a future of low wage jobs, unaffordable housing, and already inadequate health care that is under continual attack. Meanwhile the planet is threatened by catastrophic climate change while the American ruling class wallows in denial.
Millions of Americans were inspired by Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign last year and his demands for far reaching change in the interests of working people. The already resurgent interest in left ideas was catapulted into an even broader discussion of “democratic socialism” and rapid growth of socialist organizations like Socialist Alternative and the Democratic Socialists of America.
But alongside the widespread anger at the status quo there are also major political differences in the movement about how to win fundamental and lasting change in the interests of ordinary people. The key difference boils down to whether we believe that the change we need can be made within the framework of capitalism or whether capitalism itself is a fundamental obstacle to lasting change.
With President Trump in the White House, the main challenge facing us at present is how to defeat his bigoted, billionaire-backed agenda and drive him out of power. The movement must mobilize people against Republican attacks but it must also put forward a bold program speaking to the interests of working people including demands Sanders popularized: single-payer health care, free college education, a federal $15 minimum wage, ending mass incarceration and a trillion dollar investment in green infrastructure and jobs.
Fighting to win these essential reforms points to the limits of capitalism today. To take one example, just to pass Medicare for All we have to face down the combined might of the private health insurance and pharmaceutical industries who currently control more than one fifth of the U.S. economy.
The passing of Bernie’s entire program would take a mobilized working class, prepared to use its social power, to force big business to concede – particularly in the present period of economic stagnation where there is much less space for serious reforms.
Tragically there are also countless recent examples of left populist leaders, unprepared to lead the masses toward revolutionary change, who instead capitulated to the ruling class and betrayed the working class movements which put them in power. For example, in Greece in 2015 a left government – despite overwhelming support from the working class – capitulated to the European Union and the banks trying to enforce even more austerity on a population already bled dry.
Reform and Revolution
For genuine Marxists, reform and revolution are intertwined. We fight for every reform that can be won under capitalism, but we do not see reform as an end unto itself. Capitalism can never be reformed to meet the needs of working people or to be environmentally sustainable. The fight for far-reaching demands based on the needs of working people helps raise their confidence to fight for more, but it also helps to clarify the limits of capitalism. However, ending the dictatorship of the market will not happen automatically. A mass party with clear Marxist leadership, strategies and tactics is vital to seeing this struggle through to its conclusion.
In the final analysis, the presence of such an organization, the Bolshevik Party, is what was fundamentally different about Russia in 1917. In the absence of the Bolsheviks, the reformist leadership of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries would have would have certainly led the revolution to defeat.
Instead, in spite of the devastation of the subsequent Civil War and real limits of the backward economy, we saw the beginnings of a flowering of culture and human development, much of which has still not been fully realized even in advanced capitalist countries today. The Russian Revolution also shows how the working class is the only force which can deal decisive blows to all forms of oppression because a world free of oppression is in their collective interests. While many of the great gains of the revolution were partially or fully dismantled after the rise of Stalin and the bureaucracy, that in no way undermines their historic significance or continued relevance.
The task of rebuilding the socialist movement here and globally is a crucial one, and certainly we have no time to waste. While there is a lower class consciousness today than in Petrograd a century ago, we nonetheless have many advantages over the Russian working class, whose revolution inspired millions around the world, but who faced all the disadvantages of an economically backward and isolated country.
A socialist world is more possible today than ever. And as in 1917, we have nothing to lose but our chains.