Mainstream, VOL LIII No 46 New Delhi November 7, 2015
Russian Revolution: General and Particular Lessons for World Communist Movement
Tuesday 10 November 2015, by
November 7 this year marks the 98th anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia that heralded the birth of the now dismantled USSR. On this occasion we are carrying the following article.
We are approaching nearly hundred years of the epoch-making Russian Revolution. It is a revolution unequalled by any other, leaving a deep impact on history. The imprint has not diminished despite the collapse of the Soviet Union. We need to study the general and particular aspects of the Russian Revolution to draw necessary conclusions for today’s world. There are general aspects in essence applicable even today. There are particular aspects which basically pertain to the Russian features alone.
What is it that makes the Soviet (Russian) Revolution so unique? It was the first successful revolution by workers and peasants. It showed how the working class (not a party or organi-sation on its behalf) can take over power and exercise it. The party acts as the guiding force but should not replace the class. The revolution began as a class and mass revolution that later degenerated into party power ‘on its behalf’.
The Soviets were the organs of power of the working masses, along with soldiers, and were supported by a section of intellectuals. The Russian Revolution was in essence Soviet power, not party power. Had this principle been followed, the Soviet Revolution would not have bureaucratised and degenerated, and collapsed in 1991.
Russian Revolution: the First One of Imperialist Era
Why and how was the Russian Revolution possible? One cannot understand it without tracing the objective processes that led to it. It is well known that it was Lenin who first identified the new era at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries. After deep study he reached the conclusion that world capitalism had reached a ‘new stage’, that of monopoly capitalism and imperialism. Often a mistake is committed in thinking that Lenin had characterised imperia-lism as the ‘highest’ stage of capitalism; he had in fact characterised it as the ‘higher’ stage of capitalism. That is how it is described in Russian.
This discovery changed the nature, strategy, means and tactics of modern revolutions. Lenin was not a day-dreamer of revolution. As a scientific revolutionary, he based himself on solid scientific facts and data. He did not engage in sentimental utopian and anarchist nonsense. Therefore he drew necessary conclusions from the era of imperialism and made changes in many of Marx’s conclusions.
In this context he wrote a number of articles and books between 1903 and 1916, and revised several Marxist concepts and updated them. Among them was his theory of bourgeois democratic revolution, as described mainly in his Two Tactics of Social Democracy and some other works. Here Lenin developed his theses on the prolonged democratic phase of revolutionary changes before objective material conditions for a socialist revolution are created. Thus the socialist revolution is not a one-stage jump or a short phase. It is preceded by a series of democratic transformations. During this phase, productive forces are developed and the anti-imperialist demands of various classes are fulfilled. Completion of such tasks lays the ground for transiting to the next phase of socialism.
Russia: Combination of Democratic and Socialist Revolutions
The basic theses of Lenin were tested during the Russian Revolution of 1917, the very first of the imperialist era. The Russian or Soviet Revolution has variously been called proletarian or socialist revolution or even worker-peasant dictatorship etc. We will not go into those discussions here. But it will be useful to point out that the democratic content was strongly present in the Russian Revolution. Lenin was well aware of it. It was he who initiated the famous NEP or new economic policy. Under NEP, the individual, petty and small production, and the petty bourgeois and bourgeois relations of production were to be transformed during a long transi-tional phase as part of the national economy. Lenin identified at least five socio-economic formations in Russia which would be directed towards socialism during a prolonged inter-mediate duration.
In fact after his death, the democratic stage was forcibly and unrealistically shortened into a ‘socialist’ stage. NEP was given up prematurely. This led to serious crises in Soviet Russia, and was one of the major reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.
Let it be noted here that the revolution had the support of the soldiers too and that is why the Russian Revolution was mostly peaceful, even though it was armed.
The Communist Party (or the Bolsheviks) had to win a majority within the Soviets in order to decide upon the revolution. So it was the wish of the workers, peasants and soldiers to carry out the revolution against the rule of the Tsar.
The Tsar (the king of Russia) represented a combination of feudal and imperialist relations. Therefore the first phase of the revolution had to be democratic and bourgeois. The first decree of the Soviets the next day after the Revolution called for peace, bread and land to the tiller. These were not socialist slogans; they were purely democratic in nature and content. Peace by ending the First World War would have helped development of everybody and of the economy; bread was for all; and land was a long-standing demand of the peasants. These steps only opened the way forward towards socialism, and could be fulfilled only after developing the modern productive forces.
Lenin understood it very well. He therefore gave the slogan to develop the basic means of production. He advanced the formulation that only proper electrification under Soviet power would lead the country towards communism.
The General and the Particular
The importance of Russian Revolution lies in both its general and particular features.
At the same time its several aspects are still applicable in the subsequent and present-day revolutions. It has been a reference-point for those wanting basic changes in society.
The Russian Revolution will always be known for its efforts and experiments to carry out basic social and economic transformations for and by the working people.
The general importance of the Russian Revolution is that it is the greatest revolution of the working people, which lasted more than seven decades and which carried out basic transformations. It carried out serious experi-ments in creating a socialist order, which are important in both their successes and failures.
It showed what was a classical revolution and how to carry it out. It began an era of freedom movements and revolutions all over the world.
The Russian Revolution was the first attempt to overthrow the capitalist society on such a large scale. It was a concrete example of how to go about dismantling capitalism and capitalist relations of production. The Revolution was the first serious attempt at the elimination of private property.
It revealed the general features applicable to all the revolutions, reflecting the general laws. For example, it showed that the revolution matures when the productive forces and production relations collide with each other, necessitating a change in the relations.
The Revolution was often tested and compared with reference to the Marxist theory of revolution. It was the first concrete application of this theory. This has to be seen in application of the Leninist theory of revolution as applied in the imperialist era. While Marx’s theory was more generally applicable to a number of similar countries simultaneously, Lenin modified it and detected the weakest link in the imperialist chain. That weak link was the Tsarist Russia. Consequently, new weak links would appear to widen the gap in the imperialist system.
The Russian Revolution also tested the Marxist thesis of the dictatorship of proletariat, which today has been given up. Lenin showed that this concept was applicable in Russia as the dictatorship or the rule of the workers and peasants, supported by other democratic sections and groups.
The Russian Revolution showed in practice how exactly the capitalist class can be over-thrown and how its industries and means of production can be taken over by the society. The collective nature of the working class played a decisive role here. The concentration of the working class per factory was the highest in the world, and that helped the Revolution to succeed.
Workers and peasants exercised their power through the Soviets. In certain senses, the Russian Revolution was a grand example of the Paris Commune, which confirmed some of the laws of revolution.
For revolution the maturity of the objective situation and presence of the subjective factors is crucial. A premature revolution is always a failure. Therefore it is the task of the revolutionary vanguard to assess the situation.
Lenin, in his numerous articles after the Revolution, dealt with the general features of the proletarian and socialist revolution in Russia. He also showed why the same old state machinery cannot be used properly for revolutionary changes; it had to be changed in order to carry out basic changes in the economy and society.
These are some of the general features of the Russian Revolution applicable, on the whole, in revolutions.
The aim of ultimately changing the private ownership of the basic and main means of production into the social ownership of the means is the basic feature and historic objective of a socialist revolution.
Lenin called it the rule of the majority (workers) over minority (capitalists, mainly big and monopoly ones). Later on, the term ‘dictatorship’ was given up because it led to misunderstanding and was also wrong in certain senses.
The Particular Features of Russian Revolution
While the Russian Revolution led to the emergence of a powerful working class and communist movement, it also led to certain wrong conceptions of the revolution. There emerged a tendency to copy it. The revolutio-naries in many countries tried to apply the experiences of the Russian Revolution to their own countries mechanically, irrespective of their own conditions and situations. This led to many mistakes and failures. Even today there are tendencies to copy the Russian and Chinese ‘paths’ or models. This has done great harm to the communist and revolutionary movement in our own country.
There are many characteristics that are to be found in the Russian Revolution alone. They should not be copied. We should remember that it took place in certain conditions only, and therefore it used certain methods and concepts. They are not applicable elsewhere or applicable only very weakly.
It should be realised that the Russian Revolution took place in particular conditions of that country. Those conditions are hardly to be found today. Russia did not have bourgeois democracy, and therefore people did not enjoy even the elementary rights. For example, Russia only had a very weak party system and initial and restricted parliamentary electoral rights. There was no universal adult suffrage. Limited elections used to be held after very long intervals to the Duma (the Russian Parliament), even after gaps of 10 or 12 years. Parties were generally banned, except a few. The political system was absolutist monarchy of the Tsar.
There were no or very little press freedoms. For example, the papers and literature of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (later the Bolshevik or the Communist Party) were published underground and smuggled from various places.
The First World War created peculiar conditions of crisis and collapse of the socio-economic and political system, which led to the Revolution.
Soldiers of the Tsarist Army more and more supported the revolutionary movement. This fact is forgotten while dealing with the Russian Revolution. The Revolution took on the form of armed insurrection. This form of revolution is nowadays not to be found.
Democratic Revolutions Today
Quite a few things have changed today after the Second World War. A new situation arose, calling for changes in strategy and tactics of the world communist movement. The World Conferences of the Communist Parties (CPs), held in 1957, 1960 and 1969, came to certain important conclusions, many of which are relevant even today, and need further development. According to the new understanding of the communist movement, a Third World War cannot be allowed to happen, as it would lead to a nuclear war. Therefore, the movement has to work for nuclear and general disarmament. Consequently, a widespread and broadbased peace movement came into being which was closely interlinked with the mass democratic movement.
The post-war situation was, and is, that of mass and parliamentary movements, which promise a relatively peaceful process of demo-cratic revolution. Parliamentary and elective bodies spread rapidly and press freedoms took roots. Democratic revolutions were variously called people’s and then national democratic revolutions. They had Lenin’s bourgeois democratic contents and much more. Broad anti-imperialist movements came into being. Wide and large numbers of new sections took part in these movements, in addition to the usual forces of social change. Today it has become a much broader democratic revolution.
Today, vast masses of petty and small producers have come into being, and they potentially can be drawn into the democratic revolution.
Thus the democratic revolution went much beyond the usual democratic revolutions of the pre-war period. They also became much deeper.
Peaceful co-existence and peaceful economic competition created a much more favourable environment base of new social changes. Democratic revolutions became much more effective anti-imperialist and democratic in nature and content.
This constituted far more favourable conditions for prolonged periods of transition to socialism.
Consequently the present-day revolutions are far different from the classical ones.
Collapse of Soviet and East European Systems
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist regimes in East Europe have serious lessons for democratic revolutions.
The events have many lessons of long-term nature. They emphasise the importance of democracy for socialist construction. It is clear that masses of workers and party members have to be involved in the creation of a new society; otherwise the experiment in social change would fail. They prove that the democratic revolution is a prolonged phase towards socialism, and there can be no short-cuts.
The socialist models in these countries were of bureaucratic type; they have rightly been characterised as ‘bureaucratic socialism’. The party and bureaucracy concentrated power in their hands, depriving the working people in the Soviets and other organs their due role.
While fighting for democratic revolutions through democratic means, one cannot at the same time build centralised socialist bureaucracies over the heads of people. Such a socialist model has its limitations.
The Soviet experience has the lesson that the various social formations and relations have their own historic role in transition towards socialism. They cannot be forcibly eliminated unless they play out their full potential.
Today, the democratic revolutions have to be multi-class and multi-party, as part of a broad coalition of forces. The slogan of ‘99 per cent against one per cent’ is spreading rapidly. This is a new form of democratic revolution.
Lessons from Experience of Latin America
The events in about a dozen Latin American countries, and elsewhere, show that the era of Cuban, Chinese or Russian types of revolutions has passed. Now is the era of new types of social changes. Momentous changes are taking place in Latin America. A whole continent has risen against US imperialism. This is the most important highlight of the changes there. Parliaments and elections are playing a crucial role in those countries. Earlier whenever a Left coalition won the elections, the Army used to intervene against them, leading to military dictatorships. Today the Army supports the democratic process. This is the most important new development.
During the last two decades Left-oriented and democratic forces have been winning the presidential elections in about a dozen or so countries. They have formed broad alliances or coordinations, which then support the President actively. They have been able, to an extent, reduce poverty and take some steps towards nationali-sation of major industries and restricting giant national and international monopolies. Not that they are clear about everything and that their path is smooth. But they have been able to take some positive steps.
This is a new kind of peaceful democratic process. The new revolution is definitely emerging as a different kind of process. New tactics and methods have to be worked out, and the democratic electoral process improved to facilitate the society’s evolution further.
STR and Democratic Revolution
Revolution in the 21st century is going to be different. The last few decades have seen an explosion of productive and information forces due to the STR or the scientific and technological revolution. The new productive forces are changing the social composition in a big way; therefore, the nature and methods of social change underway need basic revisions. For example, the composition of the working class itself is changing. It is no more the working class of Marx’s days. It is no more the proletariat ‘with nothing to lose but its chains’; today it has much to lose.
Besides, a fundamental change is taking place in the composition of the working class. It is increasingly shifting towards non-production from production. The proportion of those engaged in production is reducing and those in service and information is rising rapidly. For the first time basic masses are being formed outside the production process.
Urbanisation is taking place rapidly. For the first time, the centre of human growth has shifted to the cities.
The STR is based on information. New means like the computers and mobiles are changing the face of the earth. Communication has become the most important activity, as is evident from the vast growth and use of the Internet which is invading every nook and corner of our lives. The factories, industrial establishments and offices themselves are being information-driven. The traditional mills, factories and industries are closing down and/or are becoming smaller in size. Consequently, the number and proportion of workers in these establishments are falling.
Simultaneously, new establishments that are coming up deal more with information, services and circulation. Here the number and proportion of workers are increasing.
New professionals and other sections, parti-cularly in the electronic sector, are emerging. The role of youth and women is on the rise.
Besides, today the role of the electronic media, e-way, social media and such other information pathways is increasing. Therefore, the e-world has become a parallel world and pathway along with the real material world. It is very important for democracy. Information is reaching the people in minutes and seconds. Therefore control over the information media is a key question of the revolution.
The democratic revolution today is tending to be pluralistic and democratic, involving vast sections of classes and masses.
We must take a broad view of the reality and not limit our vision.
The author is a Marxist ideologue.