The Russian Revolution, when it is talked about at all, is generally dismissed as a failure with little to say to us today. Sally Campbell argues that this is far from the truth — as long as people are willing to fight oppression and exploitation there are lessons we can learn from Russia.
Having received reports of one student’s recent experience of learning about the Russian Revolution in GCSE History, it seems surprisingly little has changed in the 25 years since I studied it. Students still hear rather too much about Rasputin’s dubious influence over the Romanovs, and far too little about the role of workers and the broader masses in the events of 1917.
I was at school just a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, at a time when the failure of the Eastern Bloc was held up as concrete evidence that socialism had failed. The Russian Revolution was at best an experiment that went wrong; at worst a coup that led inevitably to dictatorship and the gulags.
Yet even if the revolution was deemed a failure, it was at least something which seemed to relate to recent experience and was considered important enough to know about.
For a teenager today being taught about the mystical goings-on at the top of a long dead imperial Russia, apparently very different from our own world, the revolution must seem incredibly remote.
And this is a widespread view. As Sheila Fitzpatrick noted in the London Review of Books earlier this year, “In the rash of new books on the revolution, few make strong claims for its persisting significance and most have an apologetic air. Representing the new consensus, Tony Brenton calls it probably one of ‘history’s great dead ends, like the Inca Empire’.”
So does the revolution even have a legacy? Is there any reason other than historical curiosity to wrestle with the events of a century ago and attempt to understand the processes at work and forces at play?
Let us begin by talking about failure. In January 2017 Oxfam reported that the world’s eight richest people own as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people on the planet — that is, half the population.
In the UK, one of the richest nations in the world, official forecasts suggest the average worker will earn less in 2021 than they did in 2008.
Yet as I write, UK prime minister Theresa May is making a speech in which she claims that “A free market economy, operating under the right rules and regulations, is the greatest agent of collective human progress ever created.” She continues, “It is unquestionably the best, and indeed the only sustainable, means of increasing the living standards of everyone in a country.”
To utter these words just three months after the Grenfell Tower fire, which, in the richest borough in the country, killed at least 80 people and displaced hundreds through sheer negligence and costcutting, is nauseating.
On a global scale the world watches as extreme weather events destroy lives in the Caribbean and in South Asia, and the likes of Donald Trump still refuse to acknowledge the human impact on climate change.
At the same time the president of the US, in his war of words with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, is ramping up talk of nuclear conflict to a level not seen since the 1980s.
Capitalism fails every single day. It doesn’t meet even the basic human needs of the vast majority of the world’s population. Its economic inequality and its wars turn people into refugees — who are then left to drown if they try to find safe haven in Europe. And capitalism puts the future of the entire planet in jeopardy, whether though environmental disaster or nuclear war.
And attempts to reform it through parliaments haven’t worked. In the past century a whole number of left wing governments have been elected in various places, and while many have been able to temporarily ameliorate some of its worst effects, none has been able to legislate away the basic, brutal truth of capitalism: that it is a system based upon the exploitation of the vast majority by the extreme minority who own and control the means of creating wealth.
The Russian Revolution, and specifically the October Revolution, confronted this truth head-on, and for a period it showed how it might be possible to run society differently.
This did not come from the heads of Lenin and the Bolsheviks bestowing their knowledge upon the masses; rather it came from an intense period of workers’ self-activity. This self-activity didn’t only extend to the workplace — it also tackled forms of oppression and political grievances which had shackled Russian workers and peasants for decades.
The October Revolution was relatively bloodless, certainly when compared to the explosion of rage Russia had seen in February 1917. This was precisely because, over the months between the February Revolution and October, workers had learned from their experience both the limitations of bourgeois democracy (in the form of the Provisional Government formed after the Tsar abdicated, which had continued to wage the First World War, among other things) and the extent of their own power.
The extracts on the previous page from John Reed’s article, “Soviets in Action” (see box, below) give a sense of how workers were forced to run factories themselves, to understand the complete production process, to trade with other workplaces and to set up distribution networks. This rapid education was what made them fit to rule after October, when the old state had been dismantled and replaced with the Soviets.
The Soviets, which had been formed immediately after the February Revolution, were delegate bodies of workers, soldiers and peasants, which made the day-to-day and strategic decisions of the revolution and, after October, of the new workers’ state.
John Reed wrote about how democratic the Soviets were and how responsive to the mood of the people (see box, below). He also notes that people voted for political positions, rather than individuals. And it was through this democratic process that the Bolsheviks came to lead the October Revolution.
Far from imposing themselves upon the masses, the Bolsheviks won a majority in the Soviets for their political strategy — namely, that if Russian workers and peasants were to win genuine liberation, end the war and solve the land question, they would have to take power from the bourgeoisie and run society in the interests of the exploited and oppressed. And the Bolsheviks put the plight of women and ethnic and religious minorities at the heart of their activity and slogans.
Even after the October Revolution the leadership continued to be responsive and recallable: “Ever since the Soviet Government has been formed, the chairman — or Premier — has been Nicolai Lenin. If his leadership were unsatisfactory, Lenin could be recalled at any moment by the delegation of the masses of the Russian people, or in a few weeks’ time directly by the Russian people themselves.”
The Russian Revolution was neither a coup nor a naive experiment. It was a moment — a few years — of workers’ self-activity on a mass scale. It was the self-emancipation of the working class, just as Karl Marx had advocated decades earlier. And it was the revolutionary political drive of Lenin and the Bolsheviks that made it possible.
The tragedy of the Russian Revolution was that it didn’t spread and it couldn’t survive alone. This is what opened up the space for Stalin and his inversion of socialism to mean state rule by “the party”. This is a subject we will return to in more detail in a future issue.
There have been many revolutions since 1917, from Germany in 1918 to Egypt in 2011. Revolutions will continue to break out as long as people are exploited and oppressed. But the reason October 1917 is so important is because it went beyond the masses in the streets, or regime change at the top, to a fundamental transformation of society and the beginnings of a state in which it was possible to imagine the end of class rule altogether. As Amy Leather wrote last month, the workers’ state was intended as a temporary necessity on the way to a genuinely free, classless society.
Workers’ self-activity is even more of a necessity today than it was 100 years ago — not least because the working class is so much bigger — but we need to see a lot more of it. The political crisis in the Spanish state over Catalan independence has thrown up examples. Dockers in Barcelona decided at a mass meeting not to work on a ship housing officers from the Spanish National Police and the Civil Guard. They said they had done so “in defence of civil rights.” The Catalan CGT, a trade union grouping representing tens of thousands, released a statement saying, “After discussions with other unions, we have submitted the call for a general strike starting on 3 October.”
In Britain today Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is capturing the renewed mood for change — and for socialist ideas. But waiting for Corbyn to get elected is not how workers will break the pay cap or defend the NHS, as Mark L Thomas shows elsewhere in this issue.
As long as working class people organise and attempt to assert their power over the bosses, the Russian Revolution will not be a dead end, but a pathway to the future.
Workers at the helm
“When the March [February] Revolution broke, the owners and administrators of many industrial plants either left or were driven out by the workers…
Without superintendents, foremen, and in many cases engineers and bookkeepers, the workers found themselves faced with the alternative of keeping the works going or of starving. A committee was elected, one delegate from each ‘shop’ or department; this committee attempted to run the factory. Of course, at first this plan seemed hopeless. The functions of the different departments could be co-ordinated in this way, but the lack of technical training on the part of the workers produced some grotesque results.
Finally there was a committee meeting at one of the factories, where a workman rose and said: ‘Comrades, why do we worry? The question of technical experts is not a difficult one. Remember the boss wasn’t a technical expert; the boss didn’t know engineering or chemistry or bookkeeping. All he did was to own. When he wanted technical help, he hired men to do it for him. Well, now we are the boss. Let’s hire engineers, bookkeepers, and so forth — to work for us!’
In Novgorod was a textile mill. At the outbreak of the revolution the owner said to himself, ‘Here’s trouble coming. We won’t be able to make any profits while this revolution is on. Let’s shut down the works until the thing blows over.’ So he…and the office force, the chemists, engineers and manager, took the train for Petrograd. The next morning the workers opened the mill.
Now these workers…knew nothing of the technical processes of manufacture, of bookkeeping or management, or selling. They elected a Factory Shop Committee, and finding a certain amount of fuel and raw materials in stock, set to work to manufacturing cotton cloth.
Not knowing what was done with cotton cloth when manufactured, they first helped themselves to enough for their families. Next, some of the looms being out of order, they sent a delegate to a nearby machine-shop saying that they would give cotton cloth in exchange for mechanical assistance. This done, they made a deal with the local city co-operative, to supply cloth in exchange for food. They even extended the principle of barter so far as to exchange bolts of cloth for fuel with the coal miners of Kharkov, and with the Railwaymen’s Union for transportation…
So it was that all over Russia the workers were getting the necessary education in the fundamentals of industrial production, and even distribution, so that when the [October] Revolution came they could take their places in the machinery of workers’ control.”
Extracts from “Soviets in Action” by US journalist and eyewitness John Reed, 1918
Soviets in action
John Reed 1918
“The Soviet is based directly upon the workers in the factories and the peasants in the field. At first the delegates of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Soviets were elected according to rules which varied with the needs and population of various localities. In some villages the peasants chose one delegate for each 50 voters. Soldiers in garrison were given a certain number of delegates for each regiment, regardless of its strength; the army in the field, however, had a different method of electing their Soviets. As for the workers in the great cities, they soon found out that their Soviets became unwieldy unless the delegates were limited to one for each 500. In the same way, the first two All-Russian Congresses of Soviets were roughly based upon one delegate for each 25,000 voters…
The Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, which was in operation when I was in Russia, may serve as an example of how the urban units of government function under the socialist state. It consisted of about 1,200 deputies, and in normal circumstances held a plenary session every two weeks. In the meantime, it elected a Central Executive Committee of 110 members, based upon party proportionality, and this Central Executive Committee added to itself by invitation delegates from the central committees of all the political parties, from the central committees of the professional unions, the factory shop committees, and other democratic organisations.
…the Soviet system is extremely flexible, and if the cooks and waiters, or the street sweepers, or the courtyard servants, or the cab drivers organised and demanded representation, they were allowed delegates.
Elections of delegates are based on proportional representation, which means that the political parties are represented in exact proportion to the number of voters in the whole city. And it is political parties and programmes which are voted for — not candidates…the delegates are not elected for any particular term, but are subject to recall at any time.
No political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will was ever invented… For example, during the first week of December 1917, there were parades and demonstrations in favour of a Constituent Assembly — that is to say, against Soviet power. One of these parades was fired on by some irresponsible Red Guards, and several people killed. The reaction to this stupid violence was immediate. Within 12 hours the complexion of the Petrograd Soviet changed. More than a dozen Bolshevik deputies were withdrawn, and replaced by Mensheviki. And it was three weeks before public sentiment subsided — before the Mensheviki were retired one by one and the Bolsheviki sent back.”