The Revolution That Shook the World

The revolution, and the introduction of a planned economy, laid the basis for the transformation of Russia from the ‘India’ of Europe to the second most powerful economy and country on the globe. Despite the squandering of the advantages of the planned economy by the monstrous one-party, totalitarian regime which subsequently arose, the Russian Revolution has been more than justified in the colossal development of industry and society and also the living standards of the mass of the population since 1917.

It is impossible to understand the present world situation without understanding the Russian Revolution and its subsequent degeneration. But the Marxists will also be analyzing the revolution from another standpoint. Only in Russia, following the overturn in October, did the workers take power and establish real workers’ democracy. In the last 70 years there have been not a few opportunities for the working class to follow the path of the Russian workers of 1917.

In its sweep, scope and potential for victory of the working class the Chinese revolution of 1925-27 was equal to, if not greater, that even that of Russia. The working class in Spain, not once but ten times between 1931-37, attempted to take power.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, a revolutionary wave even greater than that which followed the Russian Revolution, swept Western Europe. In 1968 in France, the working class organized a general strike of ten million. De Gaulle fled to Germany believing that ‘the game was up’ yet the French workers were not able to emulate their Russian counterparts of fifty years before.

And we have had the experience of the Portuguese revolution of 1974, when the capitalist state disintegrated. The great majority of the Portuguese officer caste were radicalized, groping in the direction of ‘socialism’.

In the Russian revolution, the officers remained hostile to the revolution. And yet nowhere except in Russia did the working class take power.

Lenin and Trotsky

The one factor that was missing in all these revolutions, but which was present in October 1917, was the ‘subjective factor’, a workers’ leadership capable of preparing in good season the working class for the socialist transformation of society. It was the policy and the tactics of the Bolshevik Party, under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, which led the Russian workers to victory.

Lenin prepared for the Russian revolution by a study of the lessons of the Paris Commune of 1971 and the first Russian revolution of 1905. In the same way, the advanced workers today can prepare for their struggles, which will be on a higher plane even than 1917, by examining the process of the Russian revolution.

Events will not develop in exactly the same fashion as, nor with the speed of, the Russian Revolution. Nevertheless, the struggles of the working class are similar in all capitalist countries. The laws of revolution and of counter-revolution, which Trotsky brilliantly analyzed in his masterly History of the Russian Revolution, apply in all countries.

The first condition of revolution is the split in the ruling class. “Revolution starts from the top,” said Marx. Feeling the subterranean revolt of the masses, the summits of society split into different groupings. One section seeks a solution in the suppression of the mass movement. Another sees the need for ‘reforms from the top’ in order to prevent revolution from below.

Although only in outline at this stage, we see a similar process developing in the Tory party in Britain in the split between the ‘dries’ and ‘wets’.

Miliukov, the leader of the capitalist Kadet Party, in urging concessions from the Tsar in 1915, declared: “We are treading a volcano … tension has reached its extreme limit … a carelessly dropped match will be enough to start a terrible conflagration”. Albeit in more diplomatic language, this is the warning Tory ‘wets’ have given many times to Thatcher and her rightwing cabal in the Tory cabinet.

The Chirac government in France did ‘drop a match’, and was only saved temporarily from a conflagration, a movement involving the majority of the French working class, by hasty concessions to the students. In Spain this year, the refusal of the Socialist government to retreat before the students and then the fact of its retreat before the students and then the fact of its retreat under pressure – ignited an explosion of the working class.

“We Cannot Live Like This Any Longer”

The fear of Miliukov in 1915 was well founded. Russian workers and peasants were groaning under the burdens placed on them by the First World War. Two and a half million Russian workers and peasants were killed, and an additional two and a half million were wounded in the war. The Russian soldiers based in France were sent to their slaughter by the French general staff eager to conserve French troops. The workers and peasants were just cannon fodder. “The one thing the Russian generals did with a flourish was to drag human meat out of the country. Beef and pork are handled much better.” (Trotsky)

Striking workers were automatically sent to the front thereby increasing the circle of agitators who began to raise their heads and find support amongst the soldier mass in opposition to the war. The army itself began to disintegrate with desertion and the shooting of officers. Fabulous war profits were made by the capitalists while the court jeweler, Faberge, boasted that he had never before done such flourishing business.

The opposition of the Russian working class was reflected in the colossal increase in strikes. A widespread strike developed in January 1916 in Petrograd on the anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday’ when the workers were massacred in the 1905 revolution. The number of strikes doubled during that year. From economic strikes to political strikes, from partial and sectional struggles to the idea of a general strike, the movement of the Russian workers and peasants took on a convulsive form in 1916.

The year 1917 opened with the strikes and food riots in Petrograd. The idea the “we cannot live like this any longer” gripped the working class and peasant masses. Thus another condition for revolution, the preparedness of the working class to go the whole way, developed in the months before the February revolution.

The intermediary layers, particularly the peasantry, were drawn behind the working class in this period. Trotsky points out: “A revolution breaks out when all the antagonisms of a society have reached their highest tension”. It is possible that in 1916 if the Tsarist regime had made concessions, events could have developed differently in the first period of the revolution. But the process would not have been fundamentally different.

The tasks which confronted Russia were the need for a thoroughgoing land reform with land to the peasants, the solution of the national question with the right of self-determination to the oppressed nationalities, democracy and the development of a modern economy. Historically these were the tasks of the capitalist democratic revolution.

But Lenin, unlike his alleged disciples in the leadership of the Communist parties today, had taught the Russian workers that the liberal capitalists were incapable of carrying through such a democratic revolution in Russia. Trotsky, in his famous theory of the Permanent Revolution, and Lenin in his April Theses, showed that the industrialists and bankers were bound with iron hoops to the semi-feudal landlords.

The capitalists invested in land and the landlords invested in industry. 4,000 million rubles were owed by the landlords to the bankers and the expropriation of the landlords would endanger the investments of the bankers and industrialists. The landlords and capitalists were linked with the bureaucracy and the system was crowned by the Tsarist regime which was used to alternately stupefy the masses and crush the opposition.

The capitalists had wanted the monarchy to give limited democratic reforms. But this would not have fundamentally altered the course of the revolution as the experience of the Spanish revolution between 1931-37 showed. King Alfonso dismissed the dictator Primo de Rivera in the hope of avoiding revolution, but ended up following him into exile.

Running like a red thread through Lenin’s teachings is distrust of the liberal capitalists by the workers. This policy is diametrically opposed to that pursued by the present leaders of the Communist Parties on a world scale.

Lenin was utterly opposed to a programmatic bloc with the liberal capitalists. He argued that only by decisive action of the working class was it possible to tear the middle class, including the peasantry, away from those parties.

The Working Class Takes Power

The honor of beginning the February 1917 revolution fell to the women textile workers of Petrograd on International Women’s Day. Indignant at bread rations, whilst the capitalists made fabulous war profits, and with many of them having husbands and sons at the front, 90,000 came out on strike.

The next day, half the industrial workers struck in support. Slogans of “Down with the aristocracy, down with the war” were raised by demonstrating workers who fought with police, but attempted to win over the soldiers and Cossacks (who had suppressed the 1905 revolution).

An attempt to use the troops against the workers failed, with only the officers being prepared to fire on demonstrators. After clashes with workers, the troops turned on the officers and the Tsarist army collapsed.

Thus by 28 February the 1,000-year-old Tsarist autocracy had collapsed. The working class was the real power, but they were not conscious of this.

The Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries handed power to the capitalists. Even Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd, led by Stalin and Kamenev gave ‘critical support’ to the capitalist coalition. Only Lenin in Switzerland and Trotsky in New York understood the significance of the February events as the beginning not only of the Russian revolution but of the ‘international revolution’. Lenin demanded that the workers place no trust in the provisional government.

However the Bolsheviks were only 8,000 strong after the February revolution. Lenin explained that it was necessary for the Bolsheviks to base themselves on the consciousness of the masses. In the first phase of the revolution the masses had taken the line of least resistance, giving massive support to the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries. Big events would teach them the correctness of the perspectives, strategy and tactics of the Bolsheviks.

But the working class learns rapidly in revolution. The Bolsheviks grew quickly. They numbered 2,000 members in Petrograd in February 1917, 16,000 by April (with 79,000 nationally) and by late June 32,000 members. By the time of the October revolution, they had developed into a force of 2400,000 on a national scale.

Sharp Turns

But the revolution did not develop in a straight line. Within the nine months between February and October, there were many sharp turns in the situation.

In the April days, with the continuation of the war, already the workers in Petrograd were becoming disillusioned with the Provisional government. Even the workers’ and peasants’ councils, the soviets, which the masses themselves had improvised based on the experience of the 1905 revolution supported the continuation of the war. The national soviet congress in April, dominated by the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries, refused to ratify the eight-hour day.

The ‘July Days’ saw the working class of Petrograd, 400,000 strong with soldiers participating, demonstrating for the eviction of ten capitalist ministers from the coalition: “Down with the offensive, and All Power to the Soviets”.

The ‘July Days’ was a stage we have seen in all revolutions. The ‘June Days’ of 1848, the ‘Sparticist Unrising’ in January 1919, and the ‘May Days’ in Barcelona in 1937, represented the understanding of the masses that the gains of their revolution were being snatched out of their hands, and their deliberate attempts to prevent this.

The Bolsheviks opposed the July demonstration, but were compelled to go along with it. Already the workers of Petrograd were ready to overthrow the government, but the Bolshevik leadership opposed this. Lenin and Trotsky warned that the rest of the country and particularly the peasants and soldiers at the front, needed time to see through the coalition of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. The masses could only learn this from bitter experience.

The July Days led to reaction, with repression against the Bolsheviks and the imprisonment of Trotsky, while Lenin was driven underground. But when the counter-revolution, in the figure of General Kornilov, attempted a coup in August, it was defeated by the working class, with the Bolsheviks playing the most prominent role. The troops of Kornilov rrefused to take action against Petrograd once the real situation was explained to them by delegates and agitators from the soviets. The railway workers completely disintegrated the army of Kornilov by standing them in railway sidings etc.

Revolution sometimes needs the whip of counter-revolution. The August events gave an enormous access of strength and support to the Bolsheviks. In the two months that followed, the majority of the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets were won over to the Bolsheviks. Using the ‘Military Revolutionary Committee’ set up by the soviets in Petrograd, under the leadership of Trotsky, the working class took power on the 25th of October.

Some European and American capitalists dismissed the October revolution with the prediction that it would be over in a week. The Times quoted approvingly of Naklukoff, the overthrown Kerensky government’s ambassador to Paris: “The situation must be regarded seriously but not tragically. Even if the facts be true there is no occasion for undue alarm … It is better that it should have taken place and be disposed of once and for all. The Maximalist (Bolshevik) movement by its arbitrary action is already doomed. I have no doubt that the movement will be stopped by the first Cossack regiment that spears on the scene.” (9 November 1917).

The capitalists in Russia took a longer and more ‘tragic’ view than this worthy. General Zalessky mournfully surveyed the situation: “Who would believe that the janitor or watchman of the Court building would suddenly become Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals, or the hospital orderly manager of the hospital, the barber a big functionary, yesterday’s ensign the commander-in-chief, yesterday’s lackey or common laborer burgermaster, yesterday’s train oiler chief of division or station superintendent, yesterdays locksmith head of the factory?”

Now to Complete the Work Begun in 1917!

Lenin and Trotsky had seen the Russian revolution merely as the prologue to the international revolution. In isolation, backward Russia was not ready for socialism. The beginning of socialism meant a higher level of productive forces than even the most developed capitalist economy. This was only possible on a world scale. In the phrase of Lenin, capitalism had broken at its weakest link. But the Russian revolution was envisaged as the beginning of a series of revolutions in Europe and on a world scale that would usher in a world socialist federation.

Lenin’s confidence in the possibility of world revolution was justified by the convulsive events of 1918 and particularly 1919, when the ruling class itself believed that it was about to be overthrown. The only thing that saved them were the leaders of the Social Democratic Parties.

The isolation of the revolution in turn allowed the growth of a privileged bureaucratic caste in Russia itself. Gradually power was taken from the soviets and concentrated in the hands of millions of officials in the state machine, the party and the army. The mass of the working class were elbowed aside and the original democratic and internationalist aspirations of the Russian revolution were suppressed.

The Gorbachev regime today, despite its recent declarations on ‘democracy’, is a million miles removed from the Russian revolution in the heroic period of Lenin and Trotsky. There was more democracy in the weak Russian workers state of October 1917, beset by civil war and the 21 armies of imperialism, than in Russia today.

Political Revolution

It will take a new revolution, a political revolution to restore workers’ democracy, before Russian society can begin to move towards socialism. Drawing on the treasure trove of ideas of Lenin and Trotsky in this way, it will be possible to complete the work that the Russian workers began 70 years ago and establish a socialist Britain as a link in a world socialist federation.