Bolshevik Revolution: 95 years on

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Sometimes decades pass and not much happens. At other times more events take place in days than those that occurred in decades. After the collapse of the Soviet Union twenty years ago we were relentlessly told the great political and economic questions had all been settled and that liberal democracy and free-market capitalism had triumphed. Socialism had been consigned to the dustbin of history. The strategists of capital were exultant. The “end of history” was proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama. The events on a single day on 15th September 2008 were a watershed. The collapse of Lehman Brothers glaringly exposed a voracious model of capitalism forced down the throats of the world as the only way to run a modern economy, at the cost of grotesque inequality, exploitation, wars and colonial occupations; it has now come down crashing. The baleful twins of neo-conservatism and neoliberalism had been tried and tested to destruction. The Arab revolutions in 2011 not only engrossed one country after another in the Middle East but gave rise to more convulsive events around the globe than in the preceding two decades.

The intensity and ferocity of these events was such that it sent shivers down the spines of the ruling elites across the world. Innumerable comparisons were drawn of these revolutions with the revolutions of the 19th and 20th century yet the single greatest event of the 20th century, the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 was conspicuously missing from the analysis and reports of the media. And this is neither an accident nor a coincidence. It was by design which reflects the fears that even the name of this revolution instil in the hearts of the ruling classes the world over. And this is in spite of the relentless din of the voracious chorus that ‘socialism’, Marxism’, ‘communism’ are dead.

Of all the parodies of popular representation in which history is so rich, Pakistan’s political elite is perhaps the most absurd. On the one hand they reverberate the cliché that ‘socialism is dead’, while at the same time mostly the right wing politicians are frighteningly warning about a bloody revolution. Awkwardly some present the French revolution as a solution to the crisis without even knowing which one. From 1789 till 1968 there were five bourgeois revolutions and two proletarian revolutions in France. The victorious Paris Commune of 1871 was the first revolution in history in which the working classes took power and held it for more than seventy days while the May 1968 upheaval in France was even larger in comparison to the Russian revolution of 1917 but was defeated by the betrayals of the leaders of the traditional workers parties in France. But such is the deafening silence on the Bolshevik Revolution as if it never even happened. If one dares to mention it the abrupt reply of the political overlords and their intellectual geniuses of today is “Oh! That failed in Russia.” The relative weight of slander in a political struggle in society still awaits its sociologist.

The Russian revolution of October 1917 changed the course of history. The American journalist and socialist who witnessed the events of the revolution at first hand wrote in his epic book, Ten days that shook the world, “No matter what one thinks of Bolshevism, it is an undeniable fact that the Russian revolution is one of the greatest events in human history, and the rule of the Bolsheviki is a phenomenon of worldwide importance.” According to the Russian orthodox calendar, the revolutionary insurrection and the capture of power by the Bolsheviks took place on the night of October 26, which falls on November 7 in the modern Christian calendar.

This revolutionary victory appropriated rulership from one oppressor class in a tiny minority and transferred it to the vast majority of the working classes in society. The process of the overthrow of the bourgeois state and capture of power by the leading party of the proletariat had a massive conscious involvement and participation of the vast majority of toilers. It is the only revolution hitherto that took place on classical Marxist lines. Lenin explained what real change this revolution ought to bring. He wrote in December 1917, “One of the most important tasks of today, is to develop [the] independent initiative of the workers, and of all the working and the exploited people generally, develop it as widely as possible in creative organisational work. At all costs we must break the old, absurd, savage, despicable and distinguishing prejudice that only the so-called upper classes, only the rich, and those who have gone through the school of the rich, are capable of administering the state and directing the organisational development of socialist society.”

The most distinguishing feature of the Bolshevik party was that they subordinated the subjective goal, the guarding of the interests of the toiling people, to the dynamics of the revolution as an objectively hardened course. The party’s strategy was based on the scientific discovery of the laws that govern mass movements and upheavals. The muzhiks (poor peasants) had not read Lenin, but Lenin knew how to read the minds of the muzhiks. The oppressed and exploited masses are guided in their struggle not only by their demands, their desires, their needs but above all the experiences of their lives. The Bolsheviks were never under any snobbish prejudice or held any patrician derision for the independent experience of the people in struggle. Conversely they took it as their starting point and built upon it. Where the reformists and the pseudo-revolutionaries moaned and groaned about the hardships, obstacles and difficulties, the Bolsheviks took them head on. Trotsky defines them in his epic work, History of the Russian Revolution: “The Bolsheviks were revolutionaries of deed and not gesture, of the essence and not the form. Their policy was determined by the real grouping of forces, and not by sympathies and antipathies...Bolshevism created the type of authentic revolutionist who subordinates to historic goals irreconcilable with contemporary society the conditions of his personal existence, his ideas, and his moral judgements. The necessary distance from bourgeois ideology was kept up in the party by a vigilant irreconcilability, whose inspirer was Lenin. Lenin never tired of working with his lancet, cutting off those bonds which a petty bourgeois environment creates between the party and official social opinion. At the same time Lenin taught the party to create its own social opinion, resting upon the thoughts and feelings of the rising class. Thus by a process of selection and education and in continual struggle, the Bolshevik party created not only a political but a moral medium of its own, independent of bourgeois social opinion and implacably opposed to it. Only this permitted the Bolsheviks to overcome the waverings in their own ranks and reveal in action the courageous determination without which the October victory would have been impossible.”

After the victorious insurrection, Lenin spoke to the All Russia Congress of the Soviets: “We shall now proceed to build, on the space cleared by historical rubbish, the airy, towering edifice of socialist society.” The revolution ushered in a new era of socioeconomic transformation. Landed estates, heavy industry, corporate monopolies and the commanding heights of the economy were expropriated by the nascent workers state. The dictatorship of the financial oligarchy was broken; the state had a monopoly on all foreign trade and commerce. Ministerial perks and privileges were abolished and the leaders of the revolution lived in most modest conditions. Victor Serge in his, Memoirs of a Revolutionary wrote: “In the Kremlin Lenin still occupied a small apartment built for a palace servant. In the recent winter he, like everyone else, had no heating. When he went to the barber’s he took his turn, thinking it unseemly for anyone else to give way to him.” Initially the new government was a coalition of the Bolsheviks, Left Social Revolutionaries and the Menshevik Internationalists. Only the fascist Black Hundreds were banned and even the Kadets, the bourgeois liberal party, was allowed to operate after the revolution. The new government was based on the most democratic system ever seen in history, the soviets, i.e. workers, soldiers and peasants councils at grassroots level that were devised to manage and democratically control the economy, agriculture, industry, army and society. The main guiding principles of this soviet system of governance were the following:

Free democratic elections to all positions in the soviet state;
Right of recall of all officials;
No official to receive a higher wage than a skilled worker, and
Gradually, all tasks of running society and the state to be performed by everyone in turn.

What this revolution really meant for the oppressed and exploited working classes of Russia was portrayed in an inspiring anecdote by John Reed: “Across the horizon spread the glittering lights of the Capital, immeasurably more splendid by the night than by the day, like a dike of jewels heaped on a barren plain. The old workman who drove the wheelbarrow held in one hand, while with the other he swept the pavement, looked at the far gleaming capital and exclaimed in an exulted gesture, ‘Mine!’ he cried, his face all alight. ‘All mine now! My Petrograd!”

If the revolutionary victory has to be explained from a scientific analysis, the Marxists also have a historical responsibility to give a scientific explanation of the degeneration and collapse of the Soviet Union. But Marxism is a science of perspective and it is a mediocrity of knowledge to analyse events after they have taken place. The Marxists had predicted the fall of the Soviet Union far in advance, starting with the leader of the revolution Vladimir Lenin, who from a Marxist standpoint had never ever envisaged the accomplishment of socialism in a single country. On March 7, 1918, Lenin weighed upon the situation, “Regarded from a world-historical point of view, there would be no hope of the ultimate victory of our revolution if it were to remain alone, if there were no revolutionary victories in other countries... our salvation from all these difficulties is an all-European revolution. At all events, under all conceivable circumstances, if the German revolution does not come, we are doomed.” Leon Trotsky wrote an epoch making book, The Revolution Betrayed in 1936 in which he scientifically predicted more than fifty years before the events took place that why and how the Soviet Union will collapse if the revolution in the advanced countries is not victorious and a political revolution of workers democracy doesn’t take place in the USSR. Ted Grant in his outstanding 1943 work, Marxist theory of the state, further elaborated and analysed this process. His perspectives, albeit in a negative sense, were vindicated by the events around the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The Russian revolution of 1917 was not an isolated national event but had immense international repercussions. It not only overthrew capitalism and landlordism in Russia but also smashed the shackles of the imperialist stranglehold. This triggered revolutionary upheavals far beyond the frontiers of the USSR, particularly in Europe. The imperialist masters were terrified by these mass revolts that threatened capitalism in its citadels. The British Prime Minister Lloyd George wrote in a confidential memorandum to Clemenceau, his French counterpart at the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference: “The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent but of anger and revolt amongst the workmen against the present conditions. The whole existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other.” To crush the epicentre of the rising tide of the revolutionary upheavals they launched a massive attack on the nascent Soviet state with twenty one imperialist armies. Although the revolution itself was a relatively peaceful affair as only nine people died during the actual insurrection, the imperialist attack supporting the reactionary white armies brought drastic carnage, bloodshed, mayhem, starvation and destruction to a backward country already devastated by the first world war.

On the basis of extreme deprivation and pulverisation of the masses aggravated by the civil war and the blockade, the “struggle for individual existence”, in the words of Karl Marx, did not disappear or soften, but assumed in the subsequent period a ferocious character. The defeats of the revolutions in Germany (1918-19 and 1923), China (1924-25), Britain (1926) and several other countries were a fatal blow for the Bolshevik Revolution. They intensified its isolation and induced nationalist degeneration. The imperialist aggression was defeated by the combination of the heroic fight by the Red Army and the support of the proletariat and the soldiers of the imperialist countries and armies. Trotsky raised a revolutionary Red Army of five million from a war-torn Russian army of three hundred thousand. Innumerable Bolshevik cadres perished in this imperialist civil war. This created a vacuum in which the opportunist and the careerist elements penetrated the Soviet government. The shortages and dearth of commodities, the collapse of industry and agriculture due to the war brought a generalised misery that played an important role in the bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution.

Lenin struggled against this degeneration before his early death in 1924. Lenin’s last testament which criticised and called for a struggle against this bureaucratic deformation was concealed in the iron vaults of the Kremlin, and finally exposed in 1956 at the 20th Congress of the CPSU. But the hostile objective conditions, the exhaustion of the proletarian vanguard due to war and revolution created a situation where a bureaucratic regime began to emerge around Stalin in the Soviet government and the state. Trotsky created a left opposition and put up a valiant resistance against this degeneration but that was crushed because of the ebbing of the revolutionary tide. This led to the consolidation of a bureaucratic totalitarian apparatus with huge perks and privileges. The maximum wage differentials of 1:4 were abolished. This political reaction against the October revolution was so repressive that by 1940 there was only one survivor, apart from Stalin of the central committee of the Bolshevik Party that had led the revolution in 1917. All others were either exterminated, died, committed suicide, were incarcerated or exiled.

In spite of this Stalinist degeneration of the revolution, the economy remained a planned one. The bureaucracy was not a class that owned the means of production but was a caste or a clique which controlled and usurped the surplus. Inspite of these severe setbacks the economy of the USSR grew at a pace that capitalism never achieved anywhere. Ted Grant wrote in his brilliant work, Russia — From Revolution to Counter Revolution, “In the fifty years from 1913 (the height of pre-war production) to 1963, despite two world wars, foreign intervention and civil war, and other calamities total industrial output rose more than 52 times. The corresponding figure for the USA was less than six times, while Britain struggled to double its output. In other words Soviet Union was transformed from a backward agricultural economy into the second most powerful nation on earth, with a mighty industrial base, a high cultural level and more scientists than the USA and Japan combined. Life expectancy more than doubled and child mortality fell by nine times. Such economic advance, in such a short a time, has no parallel anywhere in the world.” The equality and full involvement of women was ensured in all spheres of social, economic and political life — the provision of free school meals, milk for children, pregnancy consultation centres, maternity homes, crèches and other facilities free of cost were provided by the workers state. The superiority of the planned economy was proved to the world not in the language of dialectics but in the language of unprecedented social and material advances.

However as the economy expanded rapidly it became more sophisticated, complex and advanced. An economy producing one million commodities cannot be run by the same methods as those for an economy producing 1,500 items. Trotsky had once said that, “For a planned economy, workers democracy is as essential as oxygen is for the human body.” By the late 1960s the economic growth had begun to falter. By 1978 it plummeted to zero percent. The dead weight of mismanagement, waste, corruption and bureaucracy weighed down heavily on the economy, eventually dragging it to a standstill. The isolation of the revolution, nationalist caricature of socialism and the lack of workers democratic control and management of the economy and society were the real reasons for the degeneration of the Russian revolution, not the so-called ‘failure of socialism’. What actually existed in the Soviet Union at the time of its collapse was not socialism or communism but its caricature, Stalinism.

Today with the crisis of capitalism on a world scale there have been massive upheavals against this harrowing system that has plunged the vast majority of mankind into the pit of misery, poverty and disease. It is a historically doomed system and can only cause more pain, agony and grief to the human race. Marx and Engels understood from the beginning that the crisis of the capitalist system is the crisis of overproduction or overcapacity. Even the most far-sighted bourgeois economists acknowledge this crisis and how it has brought the capitalist system into extreme crisis at the present time. The Economist bemoans in its analysis of the world economy, “Modern politics needs to undergo a similar reinvention — to come up with ways of mitigating inequality. Some of those at the top of the pile will remain sceptical that inequality is a problem in itself. But even they have an interest in mitigating it, for if it continues to rise, momentum for change will build and may lead to a political outcome that serves nobody’s interests”.

The mass revolts of a renewed class struggle arising around the world in the present epoch that is dawning are clearly rejecting capitalism. The most daunting problem for these movements is the determination of an alternative system. Most of the ex-socialists and ex-communists are in the forefront of condemning revolutionary socialism as a scientific alternative to resolve the crisis. They have capitulated to the reactionary theories of ‘end of history, etc’, i.e. capitalism. But the greater damage being done by these intellectuals is trying to ‘modernise’ Marxism by venomous revisionism. However the only road to the salvation of mankind still today is revolutionary Marxism. Ninety five years later, the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 is the only way forward for the accomplishment of this historic task. In 1917 it took about two weeks for the news of the Russian revolution to reach the leftwing activists in the Indian subcontinent. Now the masses can watch revolutions live on television. In more than nine hundred cities of the five continents there were mass demonstrations in support of the ‘Occupy Wall Street movement’. This is the internationalism that Marxism anticipated and strived for by creating the First International. At this juncture in human history if there is another October it would not and could not be confined to any national frontiers. A socialist revolution in any major country today shall redeem Lenin’s pledge that the whole world will develop into a USSR with a mighty revolutionary storm transcending the planet. Thus the process of the conquest of universe by the human race shall commence.

This article was originally published in the Pakistan Daily Times in three parts November 4-6.