The Russian Revolution was the greatest step forward in history. The working class, though a minority, led all oppressed and exploited people in smashing the Tsarist dictatorship. Taking state power through their Soviets (councils), the armed workers overthrew landlordism and capitalism, laying the first foundations for a state owned and planned economy.
Tragically, the workers’ democracy established in October 1917 became isolated and was later destroyed by the rise of Stalinist dictatorship. The way to genuine socialism has been barred by a new bureaucratic elite.
Nevertheless, the Russian Revolution itself remains a lighthouse to the black working class of South Africa and to struggling workers and youth everywhere. Seventy years on, its lessons are no less vital for us today.
Inqaba Ya Basebenzi, October 1987
70 years ago Anton Nilson fought alongside Lenin, Trotsky, and countless others to preserve the gains of the October Revolution against the armies of imperialism and the White guards in the civil war.
His political commitment to the working class had begun 12 years earlier when, inspired by the 1905 revolution in Russia, he joined the Swedish Young Socialists. In 1908 he was sentenced to death in Sweden for blowing up a ship in which scabs, brought from England to break strikes in the textile industry and on the docks, were being housed.
Fury at the sentence among workers in Sweden and abroad forced this to be commuted to life imprisonment.
By 1917 the turmoil in Russia was reverberating amongst workers in Sweden and on May Day 10,000 workers demonstrated outside the prison demanding Anton’s release. They threatened to storm the prison, and the government issued an order that if this happened he was to be shot. The workers were persuaded to remain outside the prison, and Anton kept his life. However, the demonstration precipitated the resignation of the rightwing government, and within a few months he was free again.
In September 1918 he arrived in Russia gripped by the fervor of the revolution and arming itself against the counter-revolution. He became a pilot in the newly formed Red Army and organized the air defense of Moscow, later taking command of the air-force on the Baltic Front. For his services his comrades elected him to receive an award from Trotsky.
The scarcity of fuel during the civil war made flying hazardous: “We had to use wood alcohol … this created a lot of black smoke, with flames belching out behind. Luckily the fuel was so bad, it could not burn clothes. Nevertheless it was somewhat disconcerting to be 3-4,000 feet up with flames all around you.”
After victory in the civil war Anton stayed in the Soviet Union until 1928 – witnessing the rise of the bureaucracy around Stalin: “Stalin took the state police, which had been formed against the counter-revolution, and turned it against socialists,” he says. In contrast Trotsky “tried to follow the lines of the October Revolution.”
When he returned to Sweden, Anton opposed discussions held by the Communist Party with the Nazis: “If they came to power, I said, they will not discuss with the CP; they will hang us.”
The Stalinists responded by expelling him from the party.
But despite the terrors of Stalinism, and the setbacks in the world revolution which followed, Anton maintained a commitment to Marxism and his belief in the inevitable victory of the working class:
“My Political life has been based on one belief: ‘October is correct'”.
On November 11 Anton Nilson celebrates his 100th birthday. Inqaba Ya Basebenzi, the journal of the Marxist Workers’ Tendency of the ANC, salutes him and his enduring role in the struggle of the working class of the world to complete the process begun by the October Revolution of 1917.
Revolutionary Greetings to Comrades in South Africa From Anton Nilson, on the Seventieth Anniversary of the Russian Revolution
Anton Nilson Sent This Message to Inqaba
“To all freedom fighters in South Africa –
“Ever since my youth, throughout this century and part of the last, the imperialist powers have ruled over Africa, and held its people in slavery and underdevelopment. Today across Africa millions are locked in a great struggle against world capitalism.
“I have followed these developments closely from my youngest years, and today still follow the heroic struggle that you are involved in. The most important thing is that you in South Africa keep united in your struggle.
“Capitalism is guilty of your oppression. Ultimately, there is no alternative but socialism. Private property over the resources of the earth is the greatest theft by those who have taken it and made other people slaves, unpropertied, proletarians.
“In Africa, as in all parts of the world, the task is to destroy this system, and to take over the entire globe for common management. Then a future for the people to live on this earth can be kept and developed. If you carry this struggle forward, we in Europe will be inspired by your achievements.
“In the history of the working class struggle only the October Revolution successfully conquered capitalism and carried through public ownership for the people. From 1918-1928 I participated personally in this revolution, and it is the best period in my hundred year life.
“We fought against military occupation by the capitalist powers that wanted to crush the revolution. The Russian October Revolution became no episode of a local kind but united all the Russian peoples psychologically – defeating all attempts made by capitalism to smash it.
“In the first days of the revolution the bourgeois papers of the world wrote that Bolshevism, the leader of the revolution, would only be an episode of 14 days or so. But this year the Revolution celebrates its seventieth anniversary, with the Soviet Union having become since then one of the world’s greatest countries.
“The whole idea of the revolution penetrated deep into the oppressed peoples, and was the foundation of a will and determination to win. The Bolsheviks built their revolution as a world revolution, but were left alone to follow Marx’s appeal ‘Proletarians of all countries unite’. They had no other country to follow, but had themselves to pave the way for a new Russia, abolish serfdom and Tsarist absolutism, and carry through the elimination of capitalism in the country.
“Your struggle too is of the utmost importance to the downtrodden workers of all countries in the international struggle for socialism. I therefore appeal to you that reforms to the capitalist system will not be enough – you must lay the foundations for a socialist system in order to achieve lasting progress.
“I salute you all good fighters in South Africa. Unite together and liquidate apartheid. We must work hand in hand in Europe, Africa and Asia if we are to achieve our goals.
“Long live the October Revolution that has shown the way! Long live the South African struggle for liberty!”
Anton Nilson, 9/30/87