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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 46, November 8, 2014

Historic Significance of October Revolution

Sunday 9 November 2014, by Randhir Singh

On November 7 this year falls the ninetyseventh anniversary of the historic October Revolution that changed the face of Russia and led to the birth of the USSR three years later. Remembering that Revolution we are reproducing excerpts from the chapter “Crisis of Socialism” in Prof Randhir Singh’s Five Lectures in Marxist Mode (published in 1993). These excerpts appeared fifteen years ago in Mainstream (November 9, 1996). Prof Randhir Singh is a distinguished teacher and a renowned Marxist ideologue. He is a former Professor of Political Theory in Delhi University.

It is necessary to make a point which is often obscured in the current despair or euphoria over what has happened. I would like to affirm that the ‘crisis of socialism’ we are witnessing, though diversely damaging in its consequences, takes nothing away from the historic significance of the world’s first socialist revolution or from the achievements of either the pioneering experiment in the erstwhile Soviet Union or the world communist movement—the achievements of ‘historical communism‘ as it is being described in certain epitaph-like pronouncements these days.

The October Revolution, by its revolutionary breaching of the world imperialist system, not only heralded the necessary beginning of the new epoch of transition from capitalism to commu-nism—a fact fully vindicated by the historical experience since then—it also achieved the immediate demolition of the prison house that was Czarist Russia, ending age-old oppressions and freeing vast masses of human beings, peoples and nationalities, within its extensive frontiers. Local variations apart, even when led or suppor-ted by the Red Army, the changes in Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War had similar liberating consequenes for the common people in these countries.

This historical truth should not be too difficult to recognise or accept. But the pervasiveness of the crisis, the disillusionment and despair accom-panying the collapse of the communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, makes it equally necessary to point out that these first revolutionary societies have had real achieve-ments to their credit in the period following the initial revolutionary transformations, particularly noteworthy if account is taken of the conditions they had to a greater or lesser degree inherited and the circumstances in which they survived and achieved—economic, social, cultural and political backwardness, massive illiteracy, war, civil war and counter-revolution, continuous imperialist intervention in one form or another and, in most cases, a long tradition of centralised authoritarian rule often imposed from outside, etc. The record is far, very far, from being only negative as the hostile critics are busy making out today. In the Soviet Union, for example, it is not merely that its prodigies of industrialisation in the thirties constitute an incontrovertible argument for the capacity of a planned economy to achieve growth—in a single decade it turned the country into the world’s second industrial power and created the powerful Soviet state that survived years of capitalist hostility and encircle-ment and could take on the full might of world fascism and defeat it, an argument well confirmed by the spectacular performance of the Soviets during the years of reconstruction immediately following the Second World War when with its lands ravaged and the entire economy wrecked, and more than twenty million dead, the country was rebuilt into the world’s other superpower. Still more significant have been the other successes of this first experiment in building socialism: the establishment of the right to work and social security for the working people; the equitable distribution of scarcity and the reallocation of resources so as to reduce the economic disparities among different, unevenly developed regions; the rapid elimination of the conditions of extreme poverty and the develop-ment of social consumption in health, education and cultural life; the breaching of some at least of the traditional forms of sexism and securing unprecedented participation of women in social occupations and political life; the remarkable initial responses to such difficult and complex issues as national oppression or the protection of nature; and, especially in the early years, the extraordinary flowering of human creativity in every sphere and mass participation of workers and peasants in public life, etc., etc. Even though there were retreats later on, tragic distortions and reversals in many areas, including the catastrophically rapid decay of Soviet democracy, the Soviet Union assured for vast masses of its ordinary citizens a life of material security and moral and aesthetic culture far superior to what even the countries of advanced capitalism have to offer to their common people. In Eastern Europe too, under the communist regimes, there were parallel achievements in economic, social and cultural spheres. These achievements even today have a great deal of explosive potential for the revolutionary process of the future in these countries.

The impact of the Soviet Union and the move-ments associated with or inspired by it has been no less powerful and profound outside of its borders. And this does not refer only to their decisive contribution to the defeat of Fascism. It is no doubt true tht while the communist movement attracted to itself some of the finest minds in the First World—writers, poets, artists, scientists and others—it was generally less influential than ‘social democracy’ as the latter had come to be. Despite its powerful presence in Italy and France, communism could not shift politics effectively in a socialist direction anywhere in Western Europe, though its heroic role in the resistance movements of occupied Europe gained for it extraordinary prestige and popularity which was eventually frittered away, partly because of the Soviet connection. But there is no denying world communism’s immense civilising influence on capitalism in the First World, in curbing its structurally inherent predatory logic at home and abroad. The very existence and survival of the Soviet Union over these years, together with the communist, socialist or labour movements it inspired or supported, was a most important factor, of course among many others, in persuading the ruling classes in the West not only to cede ground to anticolonial liberation movements, especially after the Second World War, but also to make concessions to their own people, to establish and enlarge the elementary democratic rights in capitalist societies. It has been pointed out that social welfare provisions were often at their most generous in the West European states bordering the former Soviet bloc; those instituted at a time when the prestige of the Soviet Union was at its highest in the early post-war period, are even spoken of as ’the fruits of 1945’.

Far more significant inthe short as well as the long run, perhaps, is the continuing impact of the October Revolution on a world scale, which the erstwhile Soviet Union, in its own much distorted manner, reinforced. Though the immediately following European revolution was betrayed, suppressed or aborted in different countries, the Russian Revolution survived to be a source of constant inspiration for the anti-capitalist revolutionary movements everywhere. What is more, it ignited the worldwide anti-colonial liberation struggles in the periphery and semi-periphery of the global capitalist system. This may well turn out to be its crowning achievement in history. The salvoes from the battleship Avrora, heralding a ‘Workers’ Peasants’ Government’ in Russia, sent out the message of Marxism to the oppressed and exploited in the remotest corners of the earth, and with it came the Leninist summons to militant revolutionary politics, which have since moved vast masses of people to become effective actors in political life, to make their own more or less successful revolutions in China, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam and elsewhere. The Soviet Union, just at it aided the radical causes and the communist move-ments abroad, also provided help to these liberation struggles and a certain support and protection when they emerged as revolutionary regimes. That, increasingly, this aid or help, support and protection, was born not of any consideration for the world revolutionary process but of mixed compulsions of own history and ideological legitimacy, ‘national interest’ and even realpolitik, or plain superpower politics, should not be allowed to obscure the signal Soviet contribution to the anti-colonial liberation in the Third World. Certainly, the sweep of post-war decolonisation owed much to the challenge and competition resulting from the need for the Western colonial powers to contend with a powerful and prestigious global rival.

Indeed, without the ‘historical communism’ as it has been called, this world of ours would have been a far more inhuman and hopeless place. Beyond its historically specific achievements mentioned above, to which could be added many more, is a somewhat intangible aspect of the social reality around us today, a general illumi-nation as it were that bathes all the failed or successful particularities of our age. You have to take only one quick look around to recognise the living presence of ‘historical communism’ in the enhanced awareness of humankind the world over concerning issues of human dignity, of justice and injustice, of equality, oppression and exploitation in the voice and hope the poor and oppressed have come to acquire in our times, in the quality and spread of their struggles for a better life and, above all, in their confidence despite all the retreats and reverses, that they can fight and win their emanicipation.

I am aware of the complexities of the historical process subsumed in the sketchy account above, aware of the need to make qualification as also to take notice of the terrible, often needless, price paid for some of the achievements. But the point I am immediately wanting to make is the simple one: there is a great deal to be said, even today, even in this hour of ‘defeat’, for Lenin’s Revolution, for the Soviet Union that was, and for the world communist movement—they have another record which holds promise of other possibilities that may yet be.

(Mainstream, November 9, 1996)