Sally Campbell spoke to Dave Sherry, author of new book Russia 1917, about how the Russian Revolution is relevant today and why its mass democratic nature is still hidden in the mainstream narrative.
For many socialists the Russian Revolution is the most important event in history, but for many young people it’s just another bit of ancient history. What would you say to a young activist who doesn’t see the relevance of the Revolution today?
The world today is about as grim and terrifying as the one the Russian workers, soldiers and peasants rose up against in February 1917. If you look at what Lenin was writing at the time, it fits today’s world. In 1918 he wrote “A Letter to American workers”. He could well have written it about Trump’s America today, when he talks about the massive gulf between the “handful of arrogant multimillionaires who wallow in filth and luxury, and the millions of working people who constantly live on the verge of pauperism”.
A lot has changed in the world since 1917, not always for the better, but there are huge similarities between the crisis that we are facing now and the crisis that confronted the world in 1917. The Russian Revolution heralded an explosion of revolutions across Europe. It led to the end of the First World War that had been raging for three and a half years.
It inspired revolt in the colonial world. The great European empires and the US dominated the world then as they do now. The Russian Revolution was about people rising up from below and challenging what had appeared to be omnipotent autocrats. This had an enormous impact on people in China, Ireland, Iraq and elsewhere.
It’s not a history lesson; it points to how people can deal with a world where, today, eight people own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population.
There have been many revolutions in the century since 1917. What is it that makes Russia unique?
There are features of the Russian Revolution that a whole series of revolutions have shared. Revolution is much more prevalent than our rulers would have us believe. The Russian Revolution itself provoked a series of revolutions across Europe which went on well into the 1920s, and there were more in the 1930s. Throughout the 20th century there were revolutions every five or six years right up to Iran in 1979.
The 21st century began with revolts — a huge global anti-war movement against Bush and Blair’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which saw the biggest demonstration ever to take place in Britain in 2003. More recently we saw the wave of uprisings across the Arab world, which terrified the Arab rulers, the Western ruling classes and the leaders of the Zionist state of Israel, because it represented not just change in Egypt but a desire for change in Palestine and freedom from the wars and oppression that have been inflicted on the Middle East since the First World War.
The difference is that in the Russian Revolution the working class, along with the peasants, actually took power and for a time was able to transform society. This was in a country that was semi-feudal, where there were only 5.5 million workers in a total population of 150 million.
The impact of the war created that explosion — the demand for an end to the war; the demand for national liberation from the Tsar’s empire; the demand for women’s rights. These revolts would have happened without Lenin and the Bolsheviks, but the significance of the Russian Revolution is that Lenin, over a long period of time, had been able to develop a political organisation that was rooted inside the working class and the rank and file of the armed forces, and was able to unite all the various struggles.
When the revolution broke out in February 1917 it was a surprise to the Bolsheviks — they hadn’t predicted it would start that way. But when it happened they were able to grow through the revolution and become a mass party of workers, soldiers and peasants.
The Bolsheviks united the struggles of all the oppressed and exploited — women, national minorities, workers and peasants; that’s why the Russian Revolution succeeded where others have failed.
Some say Lenin and the Bolsheviks are irrelevant today, but look at what’s happened in Greece in the past three years. The idea that you can build a party that straddles reform and revolution, that attempts to change things simply by being elected, has failed, just as many of the parties at the time of 1914 to 1917 failed and splintered.
When the Russian Revolution is discussed in the mainstream media the usual narrative is that Lenin was a dictator in waiting who was no different from Stalin. Your book is trying to counter that.
Yes, I aim to rescue the real tradition of Lenin and the Bolsheviks from the parody of it that’s presented as a dictatorial, one-party state.
On one of the satellite history channels there’s a two-part film about the Russian Revolution and in one sense it’s wonderful because there are images from the revolution which show that it was a mass, popular revolution. But it suddenly jumps from the seizure of power by workers in October 1917 to the crushing of the Kronstadt mutiny in 1921, which, it claims, shows that Lenin wanted a one-party state and a dictatorship all along.
It is astonishing, because it takes completely out of context what happened in 1921. How the Russian Revolution had been attacked, how particularly the American ruling class under President Woodrow Wilson, along with the British and French ruling classes, wanted to crush the revolution, just as they would today. It fails to explain how in 1921 Russia was completely surrounded and weakened, partly because it was a backward country to begin with and so it needed the revolution to spread, but the ruling classes of the world were determined that that would never happen.
That’s what a lot of discussion on the revolution is like — devoid of context. Recent research confirms the mass nature of the revolution in 1917. Even opponents of the revolution are forced to accept that it was a workers’ revolution and not a coup by a small conspiracy. There were soviets — real workers’, soldiers’ and sailors’ councils right across Russia, which backed the revolution and led it and formed the workers’ government. But they were isolated and it was that isolation which meant the revolution was defeated. None of that is told, and part of the purpose of my book is to tell that history.
There was a radio programme on recently, In Our Time with Melvin Bragg, about Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg and the Russian Revolution. The theme that ran through it was that Luxemburg was a democrat while Lenin was a tyrant. What was never mentioned was that one of the last things Luxemburg wrote was defending Lenin and the Bolsheviks. She argued that the Russian Revolution had stopped the First World War and had created for the first time a revolutionary workers’ government that showed that working class people could actually run things themselves better than their masters. For this reason, she said, the future would belong to Bolshevism.
That’s all hidden, and my book is an attempt to rescue that, not just for the sake of doing it but to show that in the world we live in today there will be revolts, but for them to succeed we have to learn from the Russian Revolution and what Lenin’s party was able to do. It was a mass party, not based on a few individuals but on a movement from below.