Reasons to celebrate the Russian Revolution of 1917

International Women’s Day 1917, the start of the Russian Revolution

By Jesse McLaren

“The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business—kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime.”

The Russian Revolution described in these lines by Leon Trotsky, began 95 years ago. As people start to interfere once more in historical events—from the Arab Spring to the Quebec spring, from mass strikes in Southern Europe to mass strikes in South Africa—the inspiring success and tragic defeat of the Russian Revolution offer lessons for the future.

From strike to revolution

Like many revolutions since then, the Russian Revolution began spontaneously—when women workers in Petrograd, angry at the war and rising food prices, went on strike on International Women’s Day and demanded that their male coworkers join them. Like the mass strike that finally drove Mubarak out of Egypt, the role of workers was key in toppling the tsar by fusing political and economic struggles.

Like in Egypt, the first phase of the revolution toppled a tyrant but left a government that continued the same foreign policy and same police violence to maintain the same system of exploitation and oppression. People learned through a process of successive approximations that more radical demands and more democratic methods were needed.

During the Quebec student strike, mass general assemblies provided a mechanism to mobilize rank-and-file students to collectively make decisions on the tactics and demands of their strike for better education. In Russia in 1917, this mass democratic character was fused with economic power through the emergence of workers councils. Then workers were able to debate and enforce their decisions regarding their workplace and the society as a whole. These sorts of councils have briefly emerged under different names at high points of struggle around the world—“soviets” in Russia 1905 and 1917, “cordones” in Chile 1973, and “shoras” in Iran in 1979.

Festival of the oppressed

When soviets of workers, peasants and soldiers democratically took full power in October 1917, it unleashed a festival of the oppressed. Emerging from a semi-feudal society, the Russian Revolution shows what leaps and bounds are possible when people collectively challenge capitalism, and through the process change themselves.

Russia withdrew from WWI and the German Revolution put an end to the rest of the war next year—making Remembrance Day a product of soviet democracy. Workers took control of factories and peasants control of the land. Homosexuality was decriminalized, and women won abortion and divorce on demand in addition to communal nurseries, dinning rooms and laundries. National and religious minorities won self-determination—including the right to independence and religious courts and schools if they chose—and members of previously persecuted groups were elected to leading positions like the Jewish socialist Trotsky. Russia developed the world’s first nature conservatory, and all structures of society were rapidly transformed to meet human needs including education, culture and leisure.

As one historian described the changes in the eastern port of Vladivostok, “under theleadership of Sukhanov, the 24 year-old student, and three young Bolshevik women, the Soviet set out to democratize Vladivostok industry. Workers’ committees ramped up production of railway rolling stock and retooled the city’s Military Port to build and refurbish civilian ships and machines. Working-class housing was built closer to industry in order to increase workers’ leisure time, and the Soviet opened a people’s university, three theatres, and two daily newspapers.”

International socialism

The Russian Revolution was the leading front in a global movement against capitalism.

As British PM Lloyd George wrote “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 pre-war 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.”

This was not confined to Europe. A revolutionary conference in Baku (Azerbaijan) built unity between workers’ revolutions across Europe and anti-colonial revolts across Asia, and over the next years there were revolutions from Egypt to China, and general strikes from Britain to Winnipeg.

As the Alberta Federation of Labour proclaimed in January 1919: “Resolved that this body places itself on record as being in full accord with the aims and purposes of the Russian and German socialist revolutions, and be it further resolved that this body gives the executive full power to call a general strike should the allied powers persist in their attempt to overthrow the soviet administration in Russia or Germany or in any other country in which a soviet form of government is or may be established.”

Revolutionary organization

But all these other revolutionary movements were defeated because there did not have the key subjective element of 1917: a mass revolutionary organization. As the Russian Revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wrote, a socialist has to act as “the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalize all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation.”

By linking the fight against every form of oppression to the power of the working class, the Bolsheviks built a mass organization united through a revolutionary paper to win over the majority to self-emancipation through the process of struggle. This required democratic centralism—freedom of discussion and unity in action—in order to learn and generalize the lessons of struggle. The Bolsheviks passed through 15 years of struggle to combine firm principles with flexible structures and tactics—from underground party in 1903 when there were no civil liberties, to open party during and after the revolution of 1905; boycotting elections in 1905 when they were a barrier to the revolution, then participating in Parliament when the revolutionary wave ebbed.

The role of the Bolsheviks in 1917 was the opposite of a coup, as Lenin argued before October: “the government must be overthrown, but not everybody understands this correctly. So long as the provisional government has the backing of the Soviet of Worker’s Deputies, you cannot ‘simply’ overthrow it. The only way it can and must be overthrown is by winning over the majority of the Soviets.”

Instead the Bolsheviks threw themselves into every struggle—including defending the government that was persecuting them, when it was threatened by a military coup—and through the process patiently explaining that soviets could and should take full power. Through the process the Bolsheviks earned a quarter of a million members and democratically won a majority of delegates in the soviets in Petrograd and Moscow in October—and it was only then that they, through the soviets, organized a mass insurrection.

Legacy

The threat of these lessons spreading around the world—from Azerbaijan to Alberta—sent a panic through the global 1%, who sent a dozen invading armies to crush the revolution, while undermining their own revolutionary movements at home who stood in solidarity with Russia. As a consequence of Russia’s isolation, an internal counter-revolution under Stalin reversed every gain of the revolution, purged the Bolsheviks of all their leading members, and turned socialist theory on its head.

But as new movements rise up, people are rediscovering the genuine socialist tradition, rebuilding socialist organizations, and joining the new struggles for a better world—struggles that benefit from the best lessons of 1917.

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Stop Western sanctions on Iran

By Niaz Salimi

Western sanctions are worsening the economic crisis and austerity measures in Iran. Cutting into oil-dependent government revenue is combining with rising unemployment and a currency crisis to devastate the lives of ordinary Iranians—as food and medicine become expensive and scarce.

In a recent update, the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) reported that since 2010, 80 per cent of Iran’s foreign currency revenue and over 60 per cent of its overall budget depends on oil income. After Saudi Arabia and Canada, Iran has the third largest oil reserves—with 133.3 billion barrels—and is the fourth leading oil producer with 4 million barrels a day.

However, after the imposition of the new round of Western sanctions, this number was reduced by almost a third: Iran’s Oil Minister announced on October 24 that the maximum production per day is 2.7 million barrel a day, which could be an inflated number.

Sanctions are worsening the currency crisis of the rial, which had lost almost 50 per cent of its values in early 2011. Intensified sanctions in 2012, and a nervous rush to swap rials for hard currency dollars, combined to push the Rial down to 10 per cent of its original value this October—one of its worst declines ever.

Recently, Fars news agency published an open letter from Iranian technological analysts calling on president Ahmadinejad to tackle the “dangerous economic situation,” and claiming most of the country’s economic problems are caused by the weakness of the currency—as imported raw materials used by manufacturers need to be paid for in hard currency.

The rulers of Iran are trying various solutions—from total denial, to blaming each other for the economic crisis, to some efforts to control the rising prices of basic foodstuffs, inflation and the currency crisis. Ahmadinejad describes the sanctions as part of a “heavy battle” that has succeeded in driving down oil exports “a bit,” while claiming that Iran has enough hard currency to meet the country’s needs.

While the sanctions are not affecting Ahmadinejad and the 1% in Iran, they are worsening the economic crisis for the 99%. The official rate of unemployment stands at well above 24 per cent, with some estimates claiming that up to a million Iranians have lost their jobs in the past year.

The closing of small and midsize workshops and factories are a daily practice and hundreds lose their jobs every day.  Basic food and medical items are scarce and expensive and the majority cannot afford their basic needs. There have been reports that gunmen have raided meat shops and doctors have fought in hospitals over the limited medical supplies.

In the midst of this grim picture, Israel’s finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, said Iran’s economy “is not collapsing, but it is on the verge of collapse,” and called for additional sanctions. But Western sanctions, which the Canadian government supports, are only increasing the suffering of ordinary Iranians, letting Iranian rulers escape blame for austerity measures. If we want to help the people of Iran against their rulers, we need to stop Western sanctions and threats of war.

The US and the 1953 coup in Iran

By Paul Kellogg

In September, US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “reaffirmed that they are united in their determination to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” Netanyahu went further, asserting his country’s right to act unilaterally saying that, even if the US does not want to act, the US does not have the “moral right” to prevent Israel from attacking Iran.

There is a nuclear threat in the region, a rogue state that defies international law: Israel. Unlike Iran, Israel already has hundreds of nuclear weapons. It is also without parallel in its open defiance of international law. Richard Falk has provided a partial list of United Nations’ General Assembly resolutions openly defied by Israel, including:

  • Resolution 181 which “establishes the parity of the two peoples with respect to their respective rights to establish states on the former mandated territory of Palestine;”
  • Resolution 194 which “affirms the right of Palestinians to return to their original homes and lands;”
  • Resolutions 242 and 338 which “require Israeli withdrawal from territory occupied during the 1967 and 1973 wars;” and
  • Resolution 465 which “orders Israel to dismantle existing settlements on an urgent basis, including those in Jerusalem.”

Clearly there is more at play here, then, than morality and international law. The real story has to do with Iran’s central place in the story of the world’s most important commodity—oil.

Oil and empire

Oil in Iran and throughout the Middle East is extraordinarily inexpensive to get out of the ground—particularly when compared to Canada’s or Venezuela’s tar sands.

President Nasser of Egypt exposed the secret in 1974 in his book The Philosophy of a Revolution. “He had then just been reading a treatise on petroleum published by the University of Chicago, which revealed to him that it cost only ten cents to extract a barrel of oil from Arab countries.” But at the time, the oil companies were selling it for between $3 and $4 a barrel.

This was not an isolated moment. In the mid 1970s oil from Kuwait could be produced at 7 cents a barrel. There is so much oil and it is under so much pressure, that no pumps are needed. The price of oil then was about $12 a barrel.

It was this kind of cheap oil that made Iran important to the Great Powers throughout the 20th century. In particular, Iranian oil was crucial for Britain, which had early on in the 20th century established controlling interest in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). Oil from Iran fuelled Britain’s military, particularly its still immense navy. In addition, most of the money made by AIOC went to Britain. So profitable was AIOC—and so dominant was Britain in its operations—that it helped offset Britain’s deficit.

In March 1951, the Iranian parliament (the Majlis) voted to end this situation by nationalizing the company. It followed this the next month, by elevating Mohammed Mossadegh to the position of prime minister. Mossadegh, a former law professor, had been a key organizer of the National Front, a coalition opposing British domination of Iranian oil.

From 1953 coup to 1979 revolution

What followed was two years of extreme turmoil. Britain launched a boycott of Iranian oil, and sabotaged production in the AIOC oil fields. The turmoil peaked in 1953, when the CIA and the British secret service colluded to stage-manage a coup d’état to depose Mossadegh. Years later, the United States admitted its role. In 2000, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in remarkably frank testimony, said that: “In 1953 the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran’s popular Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh” consolidating the power of the Shah, who “brutally repressed political dissent.”

This story is the indispensable background to the revolution of 1979, which finally overthrew the brutal Shah. This revolution cannot be subsumed under the heading of “Islamic revolution”. It was a much more complex event, involving among other elements, a massive upsurge of women, worker-occupation of oil refineries, a millions-strong student movement, and in particular, an assertion of national sovereignty against Great Power interference.

It was the latter—opposition to Great Power interference—which partially explains one of the most controversial moments of the revolution, the occupation of the US embassy and the holding of US hostages. According to one commentator: “many Iranians feared a repetition of 1953” and this “was one of the motives for the student seizure of the US embassy.”

This history is rarely referred to in the press. We are to believe that the Great Powers—Canada among them—are operating with the highest motives in their confrontation with Iran. At the very least, an examination of the very long and very criminal record of the Great Powers in Iran and throughout the Middle East, should make us ask a few questions about these claims.

Strengthening the student movement: 2012 Activist Assembly

By Candace Ghent

The weekend of October 12-13 saw a few hundred students from across Ontario participate in the  Activist Assembly, put on by the Canadian Federation of Students—Ontario.

The highlight of the weekend was the panel of speakers involved with the student movements in Chile, Greece, Spain and Quebec. They provided both insight and inspiration to new and old members of the student movement in Ontario. As Sara from Guelph University said, “For me the experience of coming to something like this makes the idea of organizing around and fighting for an idea less intimidating—I know I’m not alone.”

Although undoubtedly chock full of experienced and knowledgeable activists, the real benefit of the Assembly was for the new voices and minds it hosted. The fight against rising tuition fees is one that is growing as more and more students are feeling the financial strain of costs of living, textbooks and even just survival. It is a powerful and unifying cause that has the potential to create co-operation between fields of study, campuses and even to bridge the gap between students and workers.

The keynote address on the opening night was by Clayton Thomas Muller of the Indigenous Environmental Network, who through his own personal story talked about the process of radicalization and the importance of broad-based grassroots movements.

The second day of the assembly was broken up into blocks of workshops hosted or presented by passionate and experienced activists. Themes included: Educate, Agitate, Organize!; Activists in Court; Building an Inclusive Movement; and the Economics of Free Education. For many students, these workshops facilitated important conversation around real issues facing students today, in addition to the issue of the growing cost of education. There was also opportunity for skill-building and networking both in and outside of the workshops. For the attendees, discussing their passions and campaigns with other students was just one of the many steps taken for change over the weekend.

“It is not enough to just be against something,” said Rodrigo Echecopar who is a part of the student movement in Chile. This message is well understood by the students who attended, as the conversations were focused not just around the cost of education but also around other equity issues facing both students and workers. Even if a person is able to make it into school and able to afford to stay in school, if there is oppression on campus what are the chances they will continue? The answer is different for everyone, but the consensus among progressive minds is to eliminate the root of the question altogether.

Every person has the right to equal access to high quality education, free of cost, discrimination and oppression. In his book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Chris Hedges reflects on what the purpose of education is and writes, “We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers.” It is safe to say that this point is not lost on the students present at this year’s Activist Assembly. And if they have anything to do with it, the rest of the world will understand it too

Labour and the fight for reproductive justice

By Carolyn Egan

The trade union movement in Canada has long held pro-choice policies and was extremely instrumental in the campaign to overturn the federal abortion law that took place in the  nineteen eighties. The Canadian Labour Congress, provincial federations of labour and most national unions were strong supporters of the abortion rights movement.

When the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics was formed in 1982 and began to work with Dr. Henry Morgentaler to challenge the federal abortion law and open a freestanding clinic, one of the first outreach approaches was to the Ontario Federation of Labour. Resolutions were passed at local union meetings and submitted to its convention. A major organizing campaign took place and when the resolution came to the floor it was widely supported and passed with a strong majority. This was a huge boost for the movement and showed the broad popular support that existed.

This was the first step on the way to many unions taking up the cause and standing shoulder to shoulder with the women’s movement in the fight for reproductive rights for all women. It was very important that the definition of “choice” was broadened to include a whole range of women’s issues: the right to birth control in our own communities and our own languages, the right to childcare, the right to a decent job, the end to coerced or forced sterilization, the right to live freely and openly no matter what your sexuality and, of course, full access to free abortion. All of these were necessary if women were truly to have choices in this society.

This reproductive rights perspective was instrumental in building strong support and allowed us to organize a broad and rooted movement that could change the balance of forces in the country to overturn the federal abortion law and legalize freestanding clinics performing medically insured abortions.

Once again we have to fight to defend reproductive rights in this country. There are still no abortions performed in Prince Edward Island and women have to pay for procedures done at clinics in New Brunswick. The federal government refuses to allow abortion to be part of its maternal health policy and will only provide money for International Planned Parenthood in countries where abortion is illegal. Private member bills are being introduced in the House of Commons to create barriers for women’s access and attempts are being made to defund abortion services in Ontario and other provinces.

When an anti-choice caravan recently drove across the country from British Columbia to rally support to ban abortions, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) rallied its women’s committees. They joined with reproductive justice activists to counter the anti-choice activists in cities and towns in every province on their way to Ottawa. In most instances, turnout for the pro-choice actions outnumbered that for anti-choice actions, and the fact that the CAW made this a priority was very important to the success of the pro-choice counter protests.

Recently the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada called a Pan-Canadian Day of Action for Reproductive Justice and Equal Access. In Toronto once again the CAW provided a speaker for the event and the vice-president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council also spoke strongly in support of women’s rights.

We are in the process of organizing once again a movement for reproductive justice that will push back the attacks and make further progress in the long struggle for women’s liberation. The ongoing support of the labour movement is critical to its success and the fact that trade unionists as individuals and through their organizations are once more rallying to the cause is very positive. The austerity agenda is attacking our rights and our services at every level and the attacks on abortion funding and the support services women require to bear the children we choose to have are part and parcel of this and must be fought at every level.

2.8 million strike in Indonesia: a sleeping giant awakes

By Paul Kellogg

October 3, as many as 2.8 million workers in Indonesia staged an enormous strike, bringing the entire economy to a standstill from 9am until 6pm. It was the biggest mass action by labour in that country since 1965. The protests closed 5,000 factories in 12 provinces. In Jakarta alone, the machines at 800 factories went silent.

The strikers were demanding improved welfare and benefits. But the main issue was outsourcing. Yoris Raweyai, chairman of the Confederation of Indonesian Workers’ Union (KSPI), said that strikers wanted to change a law which allows management to hire temporary workers on annual contracts with almost no benefits.

January this year, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court ruled that the practice was illegal. Said Iqbal, president of the KSPI, announced at the end of the strike that the government had agreed to facilitate talks with employers on this issue.

Indonesia–the fourth largest country in the world by population–has seen its economy growing steadily since a devastating slump in 1997-1998 sparked a revolution and the overthrow of the dictator Suharto. It was Suharto’s rise to power in 1965 and 1966 which shattered the Indonesian workers’ movement. Suharto’s rule was cemented by the slaughter of 500,000 activists and leftists.

Economic growth–an average of five per cent a year this century–has brought unemployment down from 12 per cent in 2005 to 6.8 per cent last year, giving confidence to the workers’ movement to make demands on employers.

But this economic growth has only marginally improved the lives of Indonesia’s workers. GDP per capita has increased 50 per cent since 1998, but still sits at just $1,200 a year, a fraction of the equivalent figure in Canada. In 1998 almost 50 million eked out a living on less than $1.25 a day. That figure has fallen to 18 million–but there remain a total of 46 million living on the only marginally better sum of $2 a day.

When revolution swept Indonesia in 1998, the power of mass action was revealed for all to see. Indonesia has a massive working class, 12 million in manufacturing alone. But numbers are not enough. A successful mass movement requires confidence, consciousness and organization, and in the first years after the revolution, it proved extremely difficult to rebuild these out of the wreckage left behind by Suharto.

October 3 was a message to the world, announcing progress in that rebuilding effort. The industrial revolutions sweeping Asia are producing not just new capitalisms, but new workers’ movements.

Second Annual Toronto Disability Pride March: we proudly marched again!

By Janet Rodriguez

On Saturday, October 13, 2012, an eclectic group of eager listeners and soon-to-be marchers gathered on the South Lawn of Queen’s Park. By noon, people from ages 2 to 82, along with their loved ones, showed up and showed off their support—with written banners, rainbow flags, and personalized slogans and stories, ready and willing to participate in this demonstration.

The previous march in 2011 from City Hall to the “Occupy Toronto” site proved to be an effective stage to bring our moving message of disability oppression and accessibility rights. Afterwards, a tireless group of grassroots activists started working with other like-minded individuals in this year’s march, and our Second Annual “Disability Pride” March came a few months later with the same passion, determination, and commitment.

Before the march some sipped hot coffee; others greeted long time friends and huddled to keep warm while listening to the speakers from the mad movement, workers movement and disability movement. They shared stories of past struggles; continued discrimination at work and from the government; and messages of unity with allies from across the movements.

Once we started moving, a loud voice urged the crowd to “Stand Up!” for our rights and “Fight Back!” the systemic abuse that all three levels of government have imposed upon us by way of cuts, the austerity agenda, and the lack of a fair long-term plan to address much needed accessibility measures.

We often hear that 60 per cent of communication is through body language. In that case, we were not only sending a message, but we became the message:

“We are here! We are disabled people and we are proud! Look at us! Talk about us! Ask us!”

While marching a few of us on wheelchairs chanted our own, and more realistic, version: “Sit Down and fight back!”

Approximately fifty people with visible and invisible disabilities along with friends, family members, and allies, came from different areas of the GTA, braving the cold and the rain, to be present and raise their voices against oppression; and to carve out a space in the social dialogue for justice and rights. We marched because we need everyone to include accessibility issues in their conversations at work, at home, at school. We need this conversations to be daily and often. The more we talk about accessibility the more obvious it will be to others that people with disabilities are not often included and continuously discriminated and segregated from participation.