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Mainstream, VOL LV No 1 New Delhi December 24, 2016 - ANNUAL 2016

Russian Revolution: A Century of Historic Lessons

Monday 26 December 2016, by Anil Rajimwale

The observance of a century of the Russian Revolution has begun on November 7 this year. This article  is being published in that connection.

No other revolution has so deeply impacted the world as the great Russian Revolution. It has begun its hundred years in November this year. It continues to be a reference-point on crucial issues. Every revolution deeply influences history: English revolution (1688), American (1776), French (1789) etc. The Russian Revolution moulded the people and their thought processes more than any other. Let us first get acquainted with the historical facts before we discuss its contribution and relevance.

Emergence of Marxism in Russia 

It was Georgy Plekhanov who brought Marxism to Russia. That is why he is known as the ‘Father of Marxism in Russia’. Even Lenin considered him as his teacher.

Plekhanov founded the Emancipation of Labour League in 1870, thus beginning the Marxist stage there. That was the time when the working class was taking shape. The last decades of the 19th century brought about a transformation in socio-economic relations with the liberation of the serfs and rapid growth towards monopoly capitalism.

By the end of the century, the working class was substantial and strong enough. At the initiative of Lenin (born 1870) and his colleagues, like Martov and Axelrod, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) was founded in 1898. It was a broadly Marxist party, though it was not clear on the organisational structure. There were intense struggles within the party on political and ideological questions, which determined the future of the revolution.

Lenin’s Ideological and Theoretical Struggles

Marxism in Russia developed in struggle with Anarchist, Narodnik, Left sectarian and Right revisionist tendencies. Lenin was at the forefront of these struggles. In the process he developed several key features of Marxism, laying the foundations of what came to be known as Leninism.

Lenin countered the arguments of the Nardoniks at a young age of 24, when he wrote his famous work, What the Friends of the People Are. Countering their utopian-Anarchist views, Lenin proved that no scientific strategy of revolution in Russia could be developed without taking into account the rapid development of capitalism in Russia. He criticised the peasant socialism of the Narodniks who thought socialism would come from the rural areas. Thus they ignored the role of the working class.

Lenin made a deep study of capitalism in Russia after years of studies. As result, he wrote his work, Development of Capitalism in Russia.

Revolution in the Era of Imperialism 

Many leaders in the RSDLP and the Second International failed to understand that world capitalism had entered a new stage, that of imperialism. By the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, economic power got concentrated in the hands of a few industrialists and bankers, known as monopolists, to the exclusion of the non-monopoly producers and of course the mass of the people. Imperialist socio-economic formation came into being due to the emergence of monopolies and finance capital. Lenin was the theoretician of the ‘imperialist era’.

‘Two Tactics’ of RSDLP in Russian Revolution

The RSDLP had become an influential party by this time. Yet, serious differences arose over the conditions of party membership and the nature of the democratic revolution. The differences over the strategy and tactics of revolution led to the Two Tactics of the bourgeois democratic revolution in Russia.

Making a novel contribution to Marxism, Lenin pointed out that revolution in the imperialist era has to pass through a democratic stage, which he termed as ‘bourgeois democratic’. This stage had to be completed before going over to socialism. One could not jump to the socialist stage of revolution.

At the time, there was great discontent among the Russian people against the feudal-imperialist policies of the Tsar (the king of Russia). Russia was transiting from a feudal and semi-feudal condition to a capitalist-imperialist condition. Yet there were powerful survivals of feudalism and semi-feudalism, such as the serfs.

Russia needed a democratic and allround development of capitalism to weaken feudalism and imperialism. Lenin said, Russia suffered from both the development of capitalism and its underdevelopment. He tried to convince the party that the working class should lead a bourgeois democratic revolution to demolish all the feudal hurdles in the path of further development.

It was on the question of the bourgeois democratic revolution that the RSDLP got split into two factions and then two parties: Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. They never united again, even during the revolution. ‘Bolshevik’ means ‘belonging to the majority’, while ‘Menshevik’ conveys the minority faction. The Mensheviks did not agree with Lenin’s concept of democratic revolution, they said they were ‘against’ capitalism and therefore wanted immediate overthrow of the Tsar and whole of capitalism itself.

So, these were the ‘two tactics’ of the Russian Revolution.

The revolution of 1905 was widespread and effective but spontaneous. It was during this revolution that the ‘soviets’ were born. Soviet means council or ‘panchayat’, and they were the mass organisations of workers and peasants. They were to play a great role during the future 1917 revolution.

It was during the 1905 revolution that the concept of the front of workers and peasants was developed by Lenin. Later, the front was to include some other classes too.

First Imperialist War (WW I)

The Russian revolution of 1905 failed but it taught many lessons useful for the Revolution of 1917.

The first two decades of the 20th century were momentous for Russia and the whole the Europe and the world. It was the period of emergence of monopoly capitalism and imperialism. Not only workers and peasants but petty, small and medium producers and businesses were losing their positions in production and the market. They were fighting a difficult battle against international monopolies.

The world was being divided among the financial monopolies and imperialist powers, and colonies were being captured apace. Events were moving towards a re-division of the world, in other words towards a world war.

Arms production and the arms race were proceeding rapidly. Ever new types of mass destructive weapons were being invented and manufactured. The military industry became the most profitable and expanding branch. It was in those times that armaments like tanks, artillery and bombers were used for the first time. All the means of human destruction were being refined.

Small wars and skirmishes began to take place. The world, particularly Europe, got divided into two warring camps. The First World War (WW I) broke out in 1914 and lasted till 1918. It was the most destructive war in human history till then. It was a war to re-divide the colonies, world market and the world itself. It was an imperialist war in the real sense.

The War ended in the defeat for Germany and Austro-Hungary and victory for England and allies.

But Russia pulled out of the War before it was over due to the momentous event of Revolution.

Theory of ‘Imperialism’ and Revolution

It was in the midst of WW I that Lenin developed his theory of imperialism. He keenly observed the course of the emergence of monopolies and finance capital and deeply studied in various libraries of Europe. He was in exile in Europe. In fact he had been studying imperialism since the beginning of the century.

Lenin’s famous booklet on Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism appeared in 1916 in Zurich. We are celebrating the hundredth anniversary of this great work. It was crucial to the strategy and tactics of the social democratic and communist movement.

Lenin made necessary changes in the concepts of Karl Marx on capitalism. He showed that revolution could not be made in the same way as in the 19th century. Imperialism had created new strata in the society. It was now exploiting wider sections of people and classes through concentration of production and market in a few hands. Therefore, vast sections of non-monopoly strata had been created. Workers and peasants were being exploited more than ever before. Added to this was the fact that smaller producers and businessmen were being reduced to extinction.

Therefore, a bourgeois democratic revolution had to be carried out before creating conditions for socialism. Lenin showed that imperialism was obstructing the growth of capitalism itself. Therefore, the democratic revolution must allow certain measure of capitalist development for the growth of the productive forces.

Lenin’s theory of bourgeois democratic revolution was at first not understood and opposed by many in the world communist movement, among them M.N. Roy. Lenin opposed Roy’s thesis of first overthrowing the bourgeois leadership and then carrying on the freedom struggle. Lenin showed that the Communists must participate in all the democratic struggles everywhere.

Lenin’s theory could be grasped only gradually.

Emergence of Soviet Power, 1917

The World War brought all the contradictions to a head in Tsarist Russia. The Bolshevik Party, led by Lenin, had opposed the War from the very beginning as a war among the imperialist countries to divide and re-divide the world, with which people had nothing to do.

The Second International in its resolutions just before the War broke out had opposed it. But only the Russian Bolshevik Party implemented it. By the middle of the War, 1916 onwards, the Russian armies began to oppose the War and desert in large numbers. By 1917, the people had gone against the War. There were widespread discontent and revolt, leading to a revolutionary situation.

According to Lenin, Russia was the weakest link in the imperialist chain. As such it was here that the imperialist crisis and revolutionary situation reached a climax.

The Russian Revolution took place in two phases: March and November of 1917. According to the old Russian calendar, they were the months of February and October respectively. (Hence the terms February and October Revolutions.) The Petrograd (earlier St Petersburg, later Leningrad, today St Petersburg again) Soviet overthrew the Tsar and supported a bourgeois government led by Kerensky that came in its wake. The real power was in the hands of the Soviets. The mass of soldiers, workers and peasants supported the revolution.

Lenin was in exile at that time. He arrived in the capital in April. He characterised the revolution as a bourgeois democratic revolution and called upon the Soviets to gradually convince the masses to hand over full power to the Soviets in a peaceful manner. This is known as the ‘April Theses’, and is an important contribution to Marxist theory in political science.

The period between March and November is full of historic events and twists and turns in political developments, leading ultimately to the victory for the Soviets. It was only Lenin who could grasp the developments in an objective and dialectical manner. He was supported by a growing number of Bolshevik leaders like Sverdlov, Bukharin, Zinoviev, Lunacharsky, Kalinin, Dzerzhinsky, Trotsky and many others. Lenin’s writings in that period are a lesson in flexible and highly dialectical theory and practice, free of subjectivism. They are a lesson in scientific and revolutionary political tactics, continuously changing with the situation. It is highly educative for all of us to study those writings to grasp the Leninist strategy and tactics.

Besides the workers and peasants, the soldiers were coming in large numbers to the Soviets. Without them, the Revolution would not have been successful.

By October-November (1917) the Bolshevik Party was gaining ground in the Soviets at all levels. By the end of October, the party was in a majority in the central All Russia Soviet, which had its Executive. The All Russia Executive decided to take over power on November 7 (1917). The balance of power was so fine that Lenin insisted it should neither be on November 6, which will be too early, nor should it be on November 8, which would be too late.

On November 7 the units of armed workers, peasants and soldiers led by the Soviets occupied key positions in the capital city of Petrograd and other cities. The counter-revolutionary government was overthrown and replaced by the Soviet Government.

Soviet Government

The all Russia Central Executive Committee (CEC) of the Soviets occupied the power, led by Lenin. Lenin, on behalf of the Soviets, made three announcements (decrees): on peace, bread and land.

The Chairman of the Executive was Yakov Sverdlov (equivalent to the President of the country). The Executive appointed a Council of Ministers (known as Commissars), which had Lenin as Chairman (equivalent to being the Prime Minister).

The Soviets announced establishment of a worker-peasant-soldier government. It was clear from the first declaration that it was a democratic revolution in its present stage, in which the questions of peace, bread and land were the main ones. The proletarian revolution would subsequently create conditions for moving towards socialism. It was an anti-feudal, anti-imperialist revolution, as was made clear by Lenin in his writings, soon to become anti-capitalist in major sectors of the economy.

Russian (Soviet) Revolution inaugurates a New Era

The Revolution by the Soviets was the first major experiment in democratic and then socialist revolutions. It was a historic experiment in the socialist transformation of socio-economic and political relations, an attempt in transition from capitalism to socialism.

The Soviet regime took a number of major and fundamental measures, which were unprecedented in history and left a deep impact on the developments in the world. The major industries were nationalised and taken over by the Soviets. Land was distributed and then turned into cooperatives. Capitalisum as a class was abolished, and social and state ownership introduced. Unemployment was abolished and jobs were given to all. Free health and education were introduced. Housing and transport was very cheap.

The Soviet Union was rapidly industrialised and became one of the few leading countries of the world in economic and political might.

Lenin emphasised the need for the development of productive forces to build socialism. He opposed any hasty measure towards socialism. Lenin introduced a new economic policy (NEP) as a transitional step to involve small and medium producers. He especially warned against forcing the peasants ‘into socialism’. Lenin provided the formula ‘electrification plus Soviet power equals communism’.

Stalinism Distorts Revolution

Stalin had many achievements to his credit. He led the USSR through a difficult period. He piloted the processes of industrialisation and collectivisation. He also headed the Soviet Red Army in the victory over Nazism and fascism.

Yet it was Stalin who completely distorted the Russian Revolution and its achievements in letter and spirit. He drained it of the revolutionary and democratic spirit and deprived the Soviets and working class of actual power. The Russian Revolution was led by the Soviets of workers, peasants and soldiers, and Lenin fully respected the workers’ (proletarian) rule. He wanted to expand and democratise it, he was eager and concerned about it, for he sensed troubles in future under Stalin. And he was fully correct. Lenin had warned the party against Stalin’s attitude, and had called for the latter’s removal from the post of the General Secretary. His pleadings went unheeded. And finally Lenin’s apprehensions turned out to be true.

During the Stalin period, the working people were deprived of power, which passed into the hands of a very small coterie headed by Stalin. In fact it was Stalin’s personal rule all through. Almost all the associates of Lenin, the true Bolsheviks, were destroyed in phases by inhuman repressions. Hundreds of thousands of honest revolutionaries and Communists were killed, millions of others hunted down and brutally exterminated. They included the best in all the fields of social and party life.

No amount of ‘achievements’ can hide these crimes. In fact the achievements were more due to other leaders and honest activists, whose contributions were usurped by Stalin and his coterie. These millions had to pay for their acts of socialist achievements with their lives.

There emgered a massive bureaucracy, which on the one hand was doing many good things for the people, but on the other hand was destroying the very democratic instruments and institutions of socialist building. The ‘socialist’ achievements were achieved with the blood and life of the victims of Stalinist repression.

Lenin’s strategy was later distorted during the Stalinist period. Though the Soviet Union developed, it suffered several distortions. The ‘step-by-step’ policy of NEP and democratic revolution was replaced by hasty measures, and sections of peasants suffered. Lenin’s warning against the use of force was clean forgotten during the Stalin period. There was forced collectivisation, alienating many people. Most important, democracy was totally violated within the party and outside. The Soviets became handmaidens of the party and government, and lost their independence. These distortions were to prove very costly after the War, and became one of the reasons for the collapse of the USSR.

The massive bureaucracy created during Stalin’s rule continued to exist and even flourish later, though with less repressions and bloodshed. Some measure of democracy was restored and Stalin’s cult criticised and exposed, but those were not enough and fell short of full and drastic measures.

Soviet Russia and National Liberation Movement

We can’t deal on this subject in detail for lack of space, yet briefly we may state that it reoriented the people all over the world to think of a new society. Setting an example, it forced the West to modify their measures for the workers and to create some kind of social welfare regime. Anti-imperialist and anti-fascist struggles became more organised and powerful. The USSR emerged as the most effective force against fascism.

Scientific socialism and Marxism became the most influential ideology, teaching the people to overcome sectarian differences in their struggle for a just society.

Soviet Russia turned out to be the greatest friend of the national liberation (freedom) movement. It deeply influenced our own freedom movement and its leaders. Many of them came very close to Marxism, and some adopted it fully. The leaders and parties of national liberation generally developed as friends of the Soviet Revolution. The international working class movement and the freedom movements in the colonies became close allies and friends. The Soviet Union and other socialist countries became their closer friends in practice in economic and political reconstruction.

Russian Revolution in Struggle against Fascism, 1930s-40s

The greatest threat to humanity arose in the 1920s and 1930s in the form of fascism and Nazism led by Mussolini and Hitler. Fascism spread to the whole of Europe by the end of the 1930s. Hitler’s Nazi troops established control over most of Europe, including France, Belgium etc., aided by the policy of appeasement by the West.

The USSR led the historic struggle against fascism during the Second World War (WW II). It was at the head of the worldwide anti-fascist struggles. The unforgettable battles of the Soviet Union tilted the balance against the seemingly impregnable fascist forces led by Hitler. The system created by the Russian Revolution and the experiments in socialism enabled the USSR to beat back fascism headed by Hitler.

Joseph Stalin was the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Red Army. As an able strategist, leader and commander, he directed the operations during WW II against the Nazi and fascist troops, who launched the biggest assault in history on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. The Soviet Army fought many memorable battles headed by Stalin. He was also equally active on the diplomatic front, particularly to get the ‘second front’ opened.

The Soviet Red Army had a galaxy of outstanding commanders, among them the famous Marshal Zhukov, who was the Commander-in-Chief of the Red Army, and others.

Though he committed many military and political mistakes, due credit needs to be given to Stalin in leading the anti-fascist coalition during WW II in the life-and-death struggle against the giant military machine, unprecedented blood-letting and political-economic enslaving system of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo.

It is a peculiar irony and paradox of history that Stalin adopted, in some sense, the strategies projected by Marshal Tukhachevsky and others whm he repressed, even shot. Because of the repressions let loose by him, the Soviet Army suffered in terms of strength and quality. Stalin had to release many of his commanders and Generals from his jails or out of confinement and isolation, and put them in leading positions, such as Rokossovsky, Timoshenko, Budyonni, Konev, Chuikov, Blyukher and others. These commnaders and leaders played a stellar role during the War.

All said and done, Stalin led the Soviet Army and the anti-fascist coalition to victory over fascism in WW II.

The Battle for Stalingrad (1942-43) proved to be the turning-point in the War. It was for the first time that the German troops began to retreat from the battlefront of Leningrad-Moscow-Stalingrad. By 1944, the Soviet Army had entered Europe. The German Nazis surrendered to the Soviet Army on May 8, 1945; the War ended on May 9, 1945.

Thus the revolutionary role of the USSR saved humanity from fascist slavery. This was due to the mass participation of the Soviet people in the struggle.

Inauguration of the Era of National Liberation

The defeat of fascism and victory of the Soviet Union inspired the peoples fighting for freedom and national liberation, as also for democracy. Freedom movements in China, Vietnam, India and other countries gained momentum. At the same time, the struggle for democracy and socialism gained momentum in the Western countries like France, Italy etc.

Most of the colonial countries gained independence by the 1960s. The strength of the USSR and its active help was a crucial factor in their freedom and national liberation. The socialist camp became strong and a powerful anti-imperialist alliance came into being along with the national liberation movement. These countries began their economic reconstruction also mainly with Soviet help.

Battle against Fascism Today

The struggles of the USSR and world Communist movement against fascism have great lessons for us. The analysis of fascism and its definition by Georgi Dimitrov and the Communist International in 1935, the struggles in Spain, France and elsewhere, besides the struggle by the USSR, establish the fact that we cannot be complacent about the fascist danger. It is the greatest danger to humanity. We have to build the widest unity of the people to fight fascism.

Today, in our country, the communal form of fascism is growing. It is becoming a big threat to our democracy, democratic institutions and to all the gains of the people and country after independence. Learning from the past, from the days of fascism and Nazism of Italian and German varieties, we must develop ideological, political and mass struggles so as to not only keep them in check but erase them forever in order to save the people and democratic system.

Relevance of Russian Revolution 

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 due to Stalinist mistakes, bureaucratic over-centralisation and violations of democratic norms. Socialism has to be combined with all-round democracy; otherwise it can’t last long, even with all its achievements. These need to be gone into through detailed analysis for socialism in future.

The Russian Revolution has serious lessons for the present, both in its achievements and its gross mistakes. Democracy must be a component part of socialism. People must be taken into confidence, as also the party cadres. Working class and other working people must be the actual rulers. Laws of historical materialism must be taken into account and observed. There must be collective leadership and full respect for a variety of views.

The productive relations must be allowed to be upgraded with the development of the productive forces. Socialism must prove itself superior to capitalism in every major aspect; otherwise it is doomed. It must allow full development of the productive forces and of a people’s market. No repression must be allowed and there should be no cult of personality.

Era of Russian- and Chinese-type Revolutions over: STR and Democracy

It is clear today that the era of Soviet (Russian), Chinese, Vietnamese or Cuban-types of revolutions is over. The world has entered a new stage and needs re-assessment. In the first place, an all-embracing STR and ICR (technological and information revolutions) is taking shape, compelling all the questions to be viewed in a new light, particularly those related with the new levels of productive forces. The composition of the world society, including the working class, is changing, necessitating new approaches. Information is rapidly spreading.

The STR demands radical overhaul of strategy, tactics and methods of social change. The constituent classes are themselves changing. Democratic and socialist revolutions stand redefined.

A new world market has emerged, and the struggle for its control has sharpened. It is basically a struggle between finance and monopoly capital, on the one hand and the mass of non-finance, non-monopoly producers, middle classes, workers, peasants and other working people, on the other hand.

Today, while wealth has increased and accumulated as never before, there is a growing dearth/lack of capital for productive investment. This is due to the domination of finance capital on production and the money market, which diverts capital into non-productive channels.

This forms a crucial axis for the present-day democratic programme and democratic revolution. Without productive investment, there can be no development for the people and no measures to meet their needs can be taken up.

Productive capital must be freed from the clutches of finance and speculative parasitic (‘casino’) capitalism, and be directed into democratic channels. Today, the slogan of ‘99 per cent against one per cent’ expresses the essence of the democratic revolution. Development of the productive forces has to be given top priority.

The Russian Revolution has many lessons for us, both through its successes as well as its failures. It is an age of democracy, when parliamentary methods and structures are acquiring growing importance. So there should be no blind copying of this great Revolution.

Events in Latin America and elsewhere show that forms and methods of social transformation are fast changing. What we need is to raise democracy to new levels and develop new forms of social transformation. Learning from Lenin, we need to take scientific socialism to new levels.

We need a radically new strategy for the era of the STR, a higher level of technological revolution than the industrial one.

The author is a Marxist ideologue.