The relevance of the Russian Revolution today

Oct. 2017 Russ. 1917

By JEFF MACKLER

Leon Trotsky, co-leader with Vladimir Lenin of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, famously argued that the “Russian Question” was key to the standing of every party on earth that claimed allegiance to the heritage of revolutionary socialist politics.

To this day, 100 years after Lenin’s Bolshevik Party led the world’s first socialist revolution, no party has matched its record of social, political, theoretical, organizational, military, cultural, and moral contributions to the advancement of the interests of the working-class masses.

The official name of the Bolshevik Party was the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, Majority, with the latter word, “majority”—a translation of the Russian word bolshevik—added to the RSDLP’s name following a critical early split in 1903. The minority faction, (the “Mensheviki” in Russian) have their modern-day offspring well-represented in the ranks of “socialist” parties that seek to reform capitalism as opposed to fighting for its abolition.

The Russia of pre-February 1917 was headed by a dullard-type, Tsar Nicolas II, whose self-infatuation and delusions of grandeur included his belief that he was practically descended from God and endowed with a blue-blood purity derived from the ever-interbreeding European monarchy. Like the modern-day chauvinist bigot Donald Trump, Nicolas was no man of culture. He ruled virtually unaware of the vast social forces swirling around him, believing to the end that his incessant decrees would be implemented by the force of his will alone.

Nicolas presided over a partly feudal but capitalist Russian Empire. He never tired of giving orders to his generals to advance Russia’s nearly enslaved largely peasant armies to their doom in the course of World War I—an imperialist conflagration to divide and re-divide the world. Among Russia’s prizes was to be the Ottoman Empire’s strategically located and richest city, Constantinople, later re-named Istanbul. By prior agreement, his allies, especially France and Great Britain, were to divide up the Middle East and other continents at a time when a maturing world imperialism required free colonized labor and bountiful natural resources.

Tsarist Russia was also allied with the Japanese Empire and the United States. Both had designs on China as well as islands in the Pacific and other places where Germany had established colonial outposts.

Russia itself was often referred to as the “prison house of nationalities” after more than a century of conquering and colonizing its neighbors. Its imperial domain encompassed one-sixth of the earth’s land surface. Its conquered peoples included oppressed nations speaking some 50 national languages, all of which were officially banned in public institutions by the Tsarist autocracy.

Two revolutions in 1917

There were two revolutions in Russia in 1917. The first ended Tsarist rule and established a Provisional Government of capitalist ministers who largely abandoned the Tsar, preferring its own “democratic rule”—that is, the rule of the one percent of capitalist property owners as opposed to the rule of one. The first revolution was brought on by the terrible deprivation imposed on the masses as the Tsar pursued his war effort, using Russia’s peasants and workers as cannon fodder. While his royal court—dukes, grand dukes, princes and associated court bootlickers—reveled in luxury and engaged in all too conspicuous gala extravaganzas, starving workers and shell shocked and/or wounded workers and peasant soldiers returning or deserting the front lines roamed the streets in growing anger.

Triggered by a mass strike and the mobilization of Petrograd (St. Petersburg) women garment workers on International Women’s Day, many hundreds of thousands took to the streets to march on Tsarist institutions.

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Women march during the February 1917 revolutionary mobilization.

This time however, armed Tsarist soldiers on horseback in the capital city refused to fire on unarmed workers and let them pass. The ensuing unprecedented nationwide cross fertilization of workers, including those employed in some of the largest factories in the world, combined with landless or near-serf peasants and disillusioned soldiers to isolate the Tsar and drive him and his family to his summer palace at Tsarskoe Selo, outside Petrograd—isolated, with no support from any quarter. Centuries of autocratic rule and tradition evaporated overnight.

But the massive mobilizations of Russia’s workers and peasants gave birth to another quasi-governing institution, the soviets, an interlocking system of workers councils that emerged throughout Russia and that were governed by workers, directly elected from their workplaces and subject to immediate recall. Peasant and soldier soviets were also spontaneously established in a context where the historic and hated repressive state apparatus of the Tsarist Empire had disintegrated.

The soviets and the Provisional Government existed in a state of dual power, with the major working-class parties, the “moderate” Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), using their mass influence to subordinate the soviets, where they were usually the large majority, to the capitalist-led Provisional Government. This was done in the belief that the latter, given Russia’s still extreme backwardness in development and its small working class (only 10 percent of the population), was the only form of state authority possible at that moment in history. Limiting the revolutionary process to an interim “capitalist stage,” according to the theory and practice of these “moderate” socialists, was a historic necessity.

Trotsky: Permanent revolution

In sharp contrast, Trotsky, as early as 1905, when he led the short-lived Petrograd Soviet, formed after the defeat of Tsarist Russia in the 1903 Russo-Japanese War, rejected a “two-stage”—capitalist and then, in an unstated future, socialist—scenario for Russia’s development.

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Leon Trotsky during the Revolution.

Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution held that the national democratic tasks of previous bourgeois revolutions—land reform and democratic rights and institutions as opposed to autocratic/monarchial institutions—could only be accomplished in the framework of a socialist revolution, which would abolish capitalist property relations and establish workers’ democratic rule through the agency of nationally and locally organized soviets.

The critical political convergence on this crucial question of Lenin and Trotsky in 1917 was expressed in their demand, “All Power to the Soviets,” as opposed to the insistence by “moderate socialists” (Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries) on a capitalist Provisional Government to which the nationally-organized Soviets—now representing the vast numbers of Russia’s workers, peasants, and soldiers—had to be subordinate.

Lenin and Trotsky were far from blind to the Mensheviks’ “Marxist” argument that a workers’ state would most likely emerge first in the most advanced capitalist nations—perhaps Germany, France, or the U.S.—where the level of industrial and technological development could immediately provide the material bases for a qualitatively better life for the vast majority. Indeed, the fundamental arguments of Marxists had always been that a socialist society, emerging on the economic foundations of the most advanced capitalist states would guarantee a better life. Backward Russia was perhaps the last candidate for socialist revolution, they reasoned. The “first stage” of the revolution in Russia, they concluded, must be aimed at developing the capitalist state and economy itself. For this an empowered and “progressive” capitalist class was required.

Lenin and Trotsky replied in a myriad of real-life debates inside the Bolshevik Party, and especially with the “moderate socialists” outside who constituted the large majority of the soviets, that Russia’s capitalist class was incapable of democratic reform and land distribution, that it viewed any governing role for the soviets as inimical to their capitalist interests, that they would resort to force and violence to advance their interests. They pointed out that the capitalist class would seek the support of the old guard Tsarist military officers to enforce order and that they would look to their “allies” in the imperialist World War to crush the soviets.

In the nine-month interim between the February and October Revolutions the Bolsheviks proved right on all these questions. This was far from an abstract debate over Marxist theory. Further, in response to the argument that Russian backwardness ill-prepared it for socialism, they looked to the white hot radicalization among soldiers and the working class that was sweeping Europe at that time, as mass sentiment began to crystalize against workers being used as cannon fodder to advance the imperialist interests of the world’s predatory elite.

Thus permanent revolution, i.e., the abolition of capitalist rule in backward Russia and the establishment of a socialist order, was rooted in the immediate needs of the Russian masses and in the Bolshevik perspective that Russia’s isolation would soon be mitigated by the spread of socialist revolution in Europe.

For the Bolsheviks, Marxist theory had to coincide with reality; the highly unstable dual power that they faced, soviets versus a capitalist government, had but one resolution: “All Power to the Soviets!” On Oct. 25, 1917, when the Bolsheviks had won a significant majority in all the soviets throughout the country, they moved to establish the world’s first workers’ state, headed by a government of the working class and its allies among the vast poor peasantry and soldiery.

Which class shall rule society?

This critical issue, “Which class shall rule society—the workers and their allies among the oppressed or the capitalists—remains the central issue in world politics today. Indeed, many socialist groups today support, in one form or another, openly capitalist politicians and politics. Some are quite open in this support—including the Democratic Socialists of America and the Communist Party, which called for a vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton. Similarly, in the Democratic primaries, Socialist Alternative gave support to Bernie Sanders. The Party of Socialism and Liberation and Workers World called for a Sanders primary vote in New York and California. The latter two parties have a longstanding record of supporting “progressive Democrats” who are Black or Latino, as with their support to Jesse Jackson and others from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

The Green Party, a party of middle-class liberals and radicals, sometimes runs its own candidates in “safe states” while calling for a vote for the Democrats in contested races.

In all of the above instances, the Bolshevik credo of working-class independence, or the fight for a government of the working class, is subordinated to various “lesser evil” or related electoral schemes, usually taking the form of arguments that the Republicans are more reactionary than the Democrats or that a vote for Democrats is a requirement to stop the “fascist” Barry Goldwater, or Richard Nixon, or George Bush, or Donald Trump

Or, as with the Mensheviks of yesteryear, they seek to form multi-class “peoples’ parties” that include “progressive” or “left-wing” Democrats” who, they insist, are more attuned to the needs of the working masses than their capitalist colleagues. Bernie Sanders is a prime example; Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition served the same purpose in decades past.

In point of fact, all political parties are formed to represent the interests of one or another competing class in society—either the vast working-class majority or the capitalist-class one percent or less minority. The latter rule not only through the so-called democratic trappings of parliamentary government but also, when necessary, through the force and violence imbedded in the very fabric of all capitalist states, including the police and army as well as the courts, the prison-industrial complex, the FBI, CIA and the myriad secretive and/or repressive organizations, from the Department of Homeland Security to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Just as in the time of the Tsarist autocracy, when challenged by any significant or potential mass movement, these institutions of the capitalist state all justify the use of force in the name of “national security,” the term repeatedly adopted, employed and codified in capitalist law to maintain the minority rule of the elite few who make the real decisions in every capitalist state.

Relevance of the Bolshevik program today

The Bolshevik-program not only focused on the issue of working class political independence from capitalist politics and from the capitalist state power but also on a number of related issues that were critical to winning the massive and majority support required to establish and maintain the world’s first experiment in majority rule.

On Day One of the October 1917 Russian Revolution, the All Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers, Peasant and Soldiers Deputies approved a decree that nationalized all capitalist land in the largest nation on earth.

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Lenin speaks to workers.

This land was immediately granted to the peasant soviets to distribute in accord with the historic aspirations of Russia’s vast poor peasantry. This single measure cemented Russia’s massively oppressed majority to the revolution.

Aside from revolutionary Cuba, no nation since then has implemented a land reform-distribution of that scope. Indeed, today in Latin America every so-called revolutionary or “popular” regime, from Venezuela to Bolivia, Ecuador and Uruguay to Nicaragua and Argentina, has failed to accomplish even a modest land reform. To do so would entail a break with the capitalist system of private property that none of the above dared to contemplate.

This fundamental failure to meet the needs of the historically oppressed poor peasants and farmers inevitably cuts deep into the support required to underline the inevitable imperialist efforts to destabilize and overthrow these “popular” governments, all of which are or have recently been dominated by a combination of left-sounding reformers allied with the nation’s bankers and ruling capitalists.   

Self-determination of oppressed nations

On the same Day One, the Soviets decreed the right of Russia’s conquered peoples, its oppressed nationalities, to self-determination—that is, the right to decide to leave the USSR and organize their own separate state or to remain. Those who chose to remain were guaranteed their historic rights to language and culture, as opposed to the domination of the previous colonialist Russian conquerors. The oppressed nations were granted an autonomy that guaranteed their political, economic, and cultural rights as well as their right to change their minds in the future and secede.

With few exceptions the oppressed and now liberated peoples decided to remain, if for no other reason that the revolution had granted them the land as against their landlords and a political and social freedom that exceeded any other on earth.

The Russian Revolution’s stance on the national question—that is, the nationalism of the oppressed, not the nationalism of the oppressor—cut deep into the consciousness of revolutionaries everywhere. In discussions with the then revolutionary Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1939, Trotsky observed, “Ninety-nine per cent of the American workers are chauvinists; in relation to the Negroes they are hangmen and they are so also toward the Chinese. It is necessary to teach the white American beasts. It is necessary to make them understand that the American state is not their state and that they do not have to be the guardians of this state. Those American workers who say: ‘The Negroes should separate when they so desire and we will defend them against our American police’—those are revolutionists, I have confidence in them.”

Paraphrasing Trotsky elsewhere: “Until the great white racist beast of the American working class realizes that he cannot advance his cause on the backs of his Black brothers and sisters, there will be no revolution in the United States.”

With this in mind, the SWP early on championed Malcolm X, who was pilloried by most socialists and “progressives” at that time as a “racist in reverse,” separatist, and hatemonger. It was no coincidence that the ever-evolving Malcolm X established the closest of relations with the SWP, who published his speeches and organized mass forums to make his revolutionary Black nationalist views known far and wide.

Today’s National Football League players and athletes from an ever-expanding number of sports who have “taken the knee” in solidarity with the example of Collin Kaepernick know full well the pain and suffering inflicted on oppressed people by racist America’s institutional police state of hate, violence and mass incarceration. The vast numbers of today’s Black NLF players, some eighty percent of the sport’s modern day gladiators at the service of white billionaire bosses, hail from poor working-class families, daily deprived of fundamental rights. The great majority, their six-figure salaries notwithstanding, never become vested in NFL pensions, their often broken and crippled bodies and CTE brains used as justification to cast them off before they have met the required five years of combat to qualify for a pension.

The Bolsheviks taught these lessons on the right of oppressed people and nations to self-determination to working class fighters around the world. No nation today has exceeded their achievements.

The world invades the nascent USSR

When some 17 nations invaded the nascent USSR with the single objective of restoring the despised capitalist-imperialist-chauvinist ruling-class minority, they were defeated by the very forces that were central to the 1917 October Revolution—that is, the massive majority who directly benefited from its achievements. From a disintegrating Tsarist and then capitalist-led army of conscripted and abused workers and peasants who had no interest in defending the imperial aims of its oppressors, the 1917 Revolution produce an armed force unequalled in the entire world—an army of 10 million free people who rose to unprecedented heights to defeat the invasion of the combined forces of both sides of the imperialist war.

Just what were the strategies and tactics of this revolutionary army? Did they reside in military prowess or advanced military technologies? To the contrary. The victory of the Red Army, led by a person with virtually no prior military experience, Leon Trotsky, resided in the political consciousness imbued in the Russian masses that they were fighting to preserve the momentous conquests of the October 1917 Revolution. The Russian masses fought with political weapons above all.

Russian soldiers with Bolshevik commissars (political leaders drawn from the ranks of the revolution’s finest young soviet leaders) sought to convince their German and all foreign soldier adversaries that their fight was against their own capitalist classes and not against the Russian workers and peasants who had shown the world that a new world free from capitalist oppression and war was possible.

Massive propaganda campaigns and widespread troop-declared truces aimed at fraternization with opposing front-line troops helped to win soldier workers to understand their own class interests as opposed to their imperialist bosses. This was coupled with Bolshevik leaders’ visits to workers and socialist organizations everywhere to convince them to fight the class war at home and not the imperialist wars of their oppressors.

Nothing outraged the imperialist diplomats stationed in Russia more than to read Soviet government flyers that were dropped in the millions on the battlefields proclaiming that thousands of their soldiers had deserted the battlefields to return home to fight for their own interests. This was a form of revolutionary political warfare that made the Soviet armies and the Soviet Union an example for the world’s workers. While the Red Army’s combat losses were in truth massive, as in any world military conflagration, the strength in their fighting machine was the just and revolutionary cause that they exemplified.

For the Bolsheviks, a mass working-class party that grew from several thousand to hundreds of thousands and won the allegiance of Russia’s poor and oppressed from every quarter of society, permanent revolution was not only the political and theoretical expression of the impossibility of capitalist reform but also a rejection of the notion that socialism could be built in a single country, isolated from the working classes of the world.

Bolsheviks implement revolutionary program

The Bolsheviks seized on that special moment in history—a generalized crisis of capitalist credibility, an immediate revolutionary crisis wherein their program was in perfect harmony with the immediate aspirations and mobilizations of tens of millions of Russia’s working masses.

In this context, the actual seizure of power in Petrograd on Oct. 25, 1917 was achieved with an estimated loss of some dozen lives. The same scenario was more or less repeated in the following days across Russia.

The decrees that shortly followed the Bolshevik-led seizure of power astonished the world. They published and repudiated all the secret treaties that Tsarism had imposed on conquered nations. They renounced Russian territorial acquisitions and financial concessions forced on conquered peoples.

They opened the borders of revolutionary Russia to revolutionary fighters from around the world and led in establishing the Third or Communist International, based on a repudiation of imperialist war, on solidarity with the oppressed people and nations, and on the premise of constructing disciplined, democratic revolutionary parties on the Bolshevik model everywhere with the objective of organizing for social revolution.

The Soviet government abolished all discriminatory laws against women, against gender discrimination, and against racism in all its manifestations. These were not just empty decrees but were implemented in practice via newly established Soviet organs led by the best fighters in all these critical fields of human endeavor.

The Soviet government established a system of free education and health care. It opened its doors to artists, writers, musicians, and scientists to share every form of social, cultural and scientific expression of humanity’s future. It encouraged the formation of Communist Parties dedicated to humanity’s future everywhere on earth.

All this was accomplished in the context of the concerted efforts of world imperialism to shut down and cut off the wonders achieved by the free people of the Soviet Union.

In the U.S. the 1919 Palmer Raids, led by U.S. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, rounded up and arrested thousands of communists in the notorious “Red Scare,” wherein the government feared the spread of the ideals of the Russian Revolution. Similar mass arrests and persecution of communists were implemented by almost all capitalist European governments.

These were combined with ferocious invasions of the Russian workers’ state by countries on both sides of the imperialist war aimed at stamping out the physical existence of the vibrant revolutionary state headed by the Bolshevik-led multi-party soviets (which included representatives of the Left Menshevik Internationalists and Left Socialist Revolutionaries). The U.S. itself sent in troops to Siberia in this imperialist effort.

Still, all these efforts failed to reverse or defeat the historic achievements of the Soviet masses. But the brutal invasions and accompanying devastation took a great toll. Indeed, they laid the material basis for the future rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Contrary to bourgeois historians and to many among today’s “moderate socialists,” however, counter-revolutionary Stalinism had no “roots” in the program or practice of the Bolshevik Party led by Lenin and Trotsky. To the contrary, the rise of Stalin can only be attributed to the terrible conditions of deprivation and devastation imposed by the world imperialist invasion and subsequent embargo aimed at wiping out all vestiges of the Great Russian Revolution. But this is the subject of Part Two of this article.