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Mainstream, VOL LV No 46 New Delhi November 4, 2017

Thoughts on the Occasion of October Revolution’s Centenary

Monday 6 November 2017, by Arun Mohanty

Human society has witnessed so many revolutions but no revolution has influenced human history so much as has the Great October Revolution of 1917. No other revolution has triggered so profound socio-economic and geopolitical transformation in the global scale as has the October Revolution. The further we move away from the history-making events of 1917, the more we realise the global significance of this revolution. The October Revolution led to the birth of not only the first socialist state but ignited the fire of revolution throughout the world. Communist and Socialist parties emerged across continents from Europe to Asia, from Latin America to Africa, providing a tremendous impetus to the international communist and socialist movement.

”Europe was pregnant with revolution” as said by Lenin with the revolutionary situation maturing in many European countries. Revolutions did take place in a number of European countries, including Germany and Hungary immediately after the October Revolution; however they failed. A powerful communist movement gathered momentum in European countries following the victory of the October Revolution in Russia. However, the European socio-economic transformation took the social democratic route instead of the revolutionary path.

The October Revolution, by demolishing the world imperialist system, not only heralded the beginning of the new epoch of transition from capitalism to communism, it also ensured demolition of the prison-house that was Czarist Russia. It brought an end to the age-old oppression, exploitation of man by man, liberating vast masses of human beings, peoples and nationalities.

 The October Revolution not only provided a fillip to the international communist movement, it kick-started a process bringing tremendous change in the very essence of the capitalist system through profound transformation. It has to be admitted that the birth of the welfare state concept in the capitalist world in the 1930s was the result of the emergence of the socialist state with its unprecedented social security guarantees. Worker-friendly labour laws, strong trade union movement are no doubt the gifts of the October Revolution to mankind.

Thanks to the October Revolution, the national liberation movement in the colonial countries got intensified. The October Revolution inspired millions across continents to revolt against oppressive systems. The first socialist state extended huge support to the struggle of the toiling masses to break the chains of exploitation and oppression in dozens of countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

As the mankind celebrates the centenary of the October Revolution, there have been new debates and discourses about the revolution itself and about the first socialist state built in the former Soviet Union.

Post-Soviet Russia does not officially celebrate the centenary of the October Revolution nor is 7th November a holiday in the new Russia, though seminars and conferences are being organised by universities, Left-political parties in the country on the occasion. The most controversial debate has been raised around the question whether the October Revolution was a revolution or a coup. A group of Russian scholars assert that the October Revolution was a coup, a tragedy for Russia with the bloodshed that followed the October 1917 events. It should be asked: which revolution worth the name in human history is not stained with blood? While talking about revolutions, the other great revolution that immediately comes to mind is no doubt the French Revolution. It had triggered no less a bloodbath and tragedy than the October Revolution. But have the French people disowned their great revolution? No. 14th July —the day of storming of the Bastille, the French Revolution Day—is the most important national holiday in the country’s calendar. Revolutions come as tsunamis, nobody can predict them, nobody can prevent them. Why has the Russian ruling elite denigrated October Revolution by calling it a coup? President Vladimir Putin, who has famously declared that disintegration of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century, is conspicuously silent on the October Revolution. Notwith-standing the fact that the ruling elite has declared 7th November as a working day, the common masses continue to celebrate the occasion. Left parties organise huge mass demonstrations across the country to commemorate the anni-versary of the Great October Revolution.

Worried about the mass support for the 7th November—the anniversary of the October Revolution, the ruling elite has discovered a new holiday on November 4 apparently the day when Czarist Russia was liberated from Polish occupation after the Smuta, the dark period, that ended on this day in 1613 — a little-known historical fact. So. November 4 is a red letter day in the new Russian calendar and is celebrated as the day of reconciliation in place of the Revolution Day of November 7.

Why do some historians interpret the October Revolution as a coup? There were four coalition governments after the bourgeois revolution of February 1917 with two of them headed by Kerensky and dominated by Left parties of different hues starting from the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries, pro-gressives, Constitutional Democrats etc. In April the Bolsheviks were not exactly a large party with barely 80 thousand membership. In the summer of that year the ranks of the Bolsheviks swelled up to 250 to 300 thousand with the nationwide structure as a result of political polarisation that kick-started with the masses in huge numbers turning to the Left and the government turning to the Right. The indecisive Provisional Government failed to exercise power and resolve the major issues like cessation of war, land to the peasants and power to the Soviets of workers and soldiers. Right reactionary forces with General Kornilov at its head posed a serious threat of establishing the worst type of military dictatorship in the country. There was apprehension that Kerensky would surrender before Germany giving Petrograd to them. All these factors provided a strong impetus to the popularity of the Bolshevik Party, which was preaching peaceful transition of power to the Soviets in April, but subsequently changed their slogan in the new circumstances. The Bolsheviks after Kornilov’s defeat demanded immediate transfer of power to the Soviets, most of which were then controlled by the Bolsheviks. The powerful Petrosoviet and Moscow Soviet were headed by Bolshevik leaders Trotsky and Nagin respec-tively. There prevailed a situation of dual power between the Provisional Government and Soviets. In August the Bolsheviks refused to have any kind of coalition with the bourgeois parties, demanding power to be transferred to revo-lutionary workers. The powerful Petrosoviet and Mos-Soviet supported the idea.

While Lenin was talking about peaceful transition in April, in the autumn he demanded power to be taken over by the Bolsheviks in conditions of dual power, chaos and apprehension of the Right reactionaries recapturing power. On September 15 Lenin wrote to the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party giving a clarion call to unleash an armed rebellion. This clarion call of Lenin could not be accepted even by a section of radical Bolsheviks, who thought that the situation had not matured enough for a socialist revolution. After Lenin’s ultimatum and powerful argument that “a party is not worth the name if it cannot take over power in the prevailing situation“, many Bolshevik leaders changed their position supporting Lenin.

On October 10 Lenin in the Bolshevik Party’s Central Committee meeting strongly argued in favour of an armed rebellion since the Provisional Government was displaying counter-revolutionary trends. Zinoviev and Kamenev, the two powerful members of the Bolshevik leadership, opposed Lenin’s idea of armed rebellion and published their article criticising Lenin’s idea in the Menshevik journal Novaya Zhizn risking their expulsion from the Party Central Committee because the very publication of such an article clearly suggested the Bolshevik plan to capture power through an armed rebellion.

On October 12 the Petrograd Soviet constituted a military-revolutionary committee consisting of leaders of Bolsheviks and SRs in order to make preparations for the revolution. On October 24 Lenin in his letter to the Bolshevik Party Central Committee called for capturing power immediately overthrowing the Provisional Government headed by Kerensky. Notwithstanding the disapproval by Socialist Revolutionaries of Lenin’s command for taking over power, Bolsheviks captured power overthrowing the Provisional Government on October 25 (November 7). Since there was a huge participation of masses, peasants, workers, soldiers and sailors in the revolutionary upsurge in the country in October 1917, it was a true revolution led by the Left-leaning masses. But since power was captured by Bolsheviks by overthrowing the Provisional Government through the above methods, now a section of historians call it the October coup deducting the adjective “great” from the October Revolution. This is a deliberate attempt to trivialise the significance of the Great Socialist Revolution that opened a new epoch in human history.

The October Revolution laid the foundation of a new socio-political and economic system, advanced human society towards a new civili-sation, heralding the transition from capitalism to socialism.

But there were serious distortions and mistakes in the course of building the socialist state in the Soviet Union. The main slogan of the October Revoltion was transfer of power to the Soviets. However, the Soviets under Stalin became decorative bodies with real power resting with the Communist Party bureaucracy. In the name of dictatorship of the proletariat, it turned out to be the dictatorship of the Communist Party, and ultimately it became dictatorship of one man—Stalin. Democratic centralism, the cardinal principle of the party, was converted into mere centralism without any democracy.

Democracy was forced to be relegated to a back seat in conditions of civil war and international intervention after the Revolution. There was virtually a coalition government of Left parties, consisting first of the Bolshevik Party and Socialist Revolutionaries after the October Revolution. The democratically elected Constituent Assembly was dominated by these two parties. For truth’s sake it must be acknowledged that the Socialist Revolutionaries had much more strength than the Bolsheviks in the Constituent Assembly with the former constituting nearly 45 per cent and the latter controlling 25 per cent of the seats. This democratically elected organ was supposed to shape the political and economic course of the country. But the Bolsheviks virtually blocked the democratic development of the country by dissolving the Constituent Assembly, the only hope and legal body to give shape to the future socialist state. Dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, under whatever compulsion, paved the way for the emergence of an authoritarian regime in the country.

Karl Marx had defined the broad contours of socialism but had never outlined a concrete roadmap for building a socialist society. That is why there were trial and error methods used in the course of building the socialist society. War communism that followed the October Revolution was an erroneous path necessitated by the fear of counter-revolution, international intervention, civil war and, of course, some wrong interpretation of Marxism. Lenin, realising the inefficacy of war communism, abandoned it in favour of NEP that made the Soviet Union’s economy productive in a matter of several years. But Stalin abandoned it in favour of forcible collectivisation and corrosive industrialisation at the cost of agriculture bringing miseries for the rural population but transforming the country from a feudal economy into a highly industrialised state through a mobilisation economy in course of just three Five Year Plans that made the country capable of defeating the war-machine of fascist Hitler.

Wilson Churchill had predicted that the USSR will never rise from the massive destruction in the Second World War. But the USSR could rebuild its economy from the ruins of the war in the course of six-to-seven years thanks to the mobilisation economy or command and administer system. But this system exhausted its potential in the middle of the 1950s when the country should have gone for market-based reforms through timely course correction. Khrushchev understood the need for reforms but did not know how to do so. Finally, It is Soviet Prime Minister Aleksei Kosygin who launched a massive economic reforms pro-gramme in the country in 1965 that produced impressive results opening new vistas for the Soviet economy but was abandoned in 1969, the year of Stalin’s birth centenary, opening the doors for the Stalinist methods of management staging a slow comeback. This was followed by the so-called stagnation period when the USSR missed couple of technological revolutions leading to its economic decline. Andropov, who was the KGB chief for many years, apparently had a blueprint for serious economic reforms but his untimely death put a full-stop to his plans. Gorbachev, realising the necessity for reforms, started his rule with the Uskoreniye programme (Economic acceleration programme) but soon switched gears to ill-conceived political reforms that ultimately led to the Soviet collapse in 1991. One has to bear in mind that in spite of civil war, Second World War with its massive destructions, grave mistakes, lack of timely course correction, serious distortions in course of building a socialist society, the USSR could emerge as the second largest economy in the world and global superpower at par with the US attaining strategic parity with it by the end of the 1960s. The Soviet Union could have no doubt emerged as a much more powerful and prosperous country but for those mistakes and wars. This proves the tremendous potential of a socialist system.

The sudden collapse of the USSR and dis-appearance of the socialist camp led some Western scholars, particularly US political scientist Fukuyama, to proclaim the “end of history”, arguing that the historic battle between capitalism and socialism had been won decisively and conclusively in favour of the former. However, the unprecedented crisis of capitalism from 2008 exposed the hollowness of this argument compelling Fukuyama to withdraw his own assertion. This again proved that capitalism is definitely not the final station in the long journey of human civilisation. But the alternative to capitalism is certainly not the Stalinist model of barrack socialism with everything being controlled by the state. Marx had said alienation of the means of production from producers (workers) should be eliminated in a socialist system by bringing about socialisation of the productive forces. In the Stalinist model of socialism, state property or nationalised property was understood to be the highest form of socialisation, which was fraught with error. This is clearly proved by the privatisation programme of post-Soviet Russia. Russian Communists thought that workers would revolt when factories—their property—would be privatised for a song. Nothing of the sort happened, because the working class in the Soviet Union never thought that they were the owners of the factories. In the meantime, the level of socialisation of the productive forces in post-industrial countries has reached new heights through the joint-stock company that to an extent has eliminated alienation of workers from the means of production bringing elements of socialism to their society. The welfare state concept that has taken roots in some of the developed post-industrial European countries has elements of socialism with their socio-economic development programme that stipulates easy access of the common man to free health care and education system etc. But they are nowhere near the wide social security system built in the USSR.

The collapse of the Soviet Union no doubt delivered a big blow to the ideals of the October Revolution. However, neither the ideals of the October Revolution like equality, fraternity, social justice have disappeared nor have the tremendous achievements and impact of the very presence of the first socialist state been obliterated. Rather, the collapse of the first socialist state—the baby of the October Revolution—from the world map as a result of internal and external factors has caused serious adverse consequences for global developments. The fall of the mighty Soviet Union first of all opened the floodgates for the emergence of an authoritarian, undemocratic, unfair, unipolar global order. It delivered a severe blow to the progressive movements across the world. The disastrous fundamentalist market reforms follo-wing the Soviet disintegration led to the de-industrialisation of the mighty USSR, making it a Third World country, destroying its economic and military potential and wiping out the Soviet social security system. President Putin’s policies modernised the socio-economic system built under Yeltsin, bringing some sort of economic and political stability to the country, and restoring its international status. The abject poverty of the Yeltsin years may not be there in the country any more. But according to official statistics, nearly 15 per cent people still live below the poverty line. Unprecedented inequality has raised its head with 75 per cent wealth being concentrated in the hands of just one per cent of the population. The official statistics says that the gap between the rich and poor in terms of wealth is 17 times whereas independent analysts say this gap could be 50 times. The former first socialist state has the highest number of billionaires while millions struggle to make both ends meet. The memory of mass sufferings during Yeltsin’s rule is so strong that people do not protest or demand change of the regime fearing any new change might usher in the Yeltsin-era tragedies and chaos.

There is a deliberate attack on trade union rights in the world. Labour laws are being tailored to protect the interests of the capitalists at the cost of the working class. Many of the achievements in the sphere of social security of the working class are being trampled. Neo-liberalism is having a field day. But on the other hand there is a Left upsurge in Latin America. Countries like China and Vietnam are making steady progress in building a socialist society. There seems to be a new awakening in Europe as shown by the Left’s rise in Greece, Spain, Italy and France. There might be a retreat in the Left movement as whole after the fall of the Soviet Union, but this is temporary. The ideals of the October Revolution such as social justice, equality, fraternity, end of oppression and exploitation of man by man are alive and kicking. Human society would not stop its struggle till those ideals are realised.

In this context one would like to share an interesting data that has come out recently about a survey on the October Revolution. It is as follows:

“A national survey asked the respondents: what do you think about the Russian Government’s decision not to celebrate the centenary of the October Revolution? Eighteen per cent of the respondents approved the government decision, while 26 per cent said the decision was not correct, 46 per cent were of the opinion that it was not only an incorrect decision, but very disgraceful and a national humiliation.” This is reflective of the national mood in Russia today.

Prof Arun Mohanty belongs to the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is also the Director of the Delhi-based Eurasian Foundation.

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