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.”
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.”
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.
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.