History & Theory

Dynamism of Bolshevik Revolution’s Legacy, 99 years on!

By Lal Khan

On the fateful night between 6th and 7th November 1917 the Bolsheviks took power through a revolutionary insurrection in Russia. This one gigantic stride of humankind changed the course of history. Bolshevism has withstood the ravages of time. Wars and bloodletting terrorism are tearing apart societies, with remorseless attacks on the working classes in advanced countries. Yet all the methods from reformism to repression by the capitalist states in confines of this diseased system have failed miserably.

The American socialist, John Reed, who witnessed the events of the revolution at first-hand, wrote in his epic book, Ten days that shook the world, “No matter what one thinks of Bolshevism, it is an undeniable fact that the Russian revolution is one of the greatest events in human history.” This revolutionary victory appropriated rulership from a tiny oppressor class and transferred it to the vast majority of the working classes in society with their conscious involvement and participation. It is the only revolution hitherto that took place on classical Marxist positions.

Lenin wrote in December 1917, “One of the most important tasks of today, is to develop [the] independent initiative of the workers, and of all the exploited people generally, as widely as possible in creative organisational work. At all costs we must break the old, absurd, savage, despicable and distinguishing prejudice that only the so-called upper classes, only the rich, and those who have gone through the school of the rich, are capable of administering the state and directing the organisational development of socialist society…”

The most distinguishing feature of the Bolshevik party was that they subordinated the subjective goal, the guarding of the interests of the toiling people, to the dynamics of the revolution as an objectively hardened course. The party’s strategy was based on the scientific discovery of the laws that govern mass movements and upheavals. The muzhiks (poor peasants) had not read Lenin, but Lenin knew how to read the minds of the muzhiks. The oppressed and exploited masses are guided in their struggle not only by their demands, their desires, their needs but above all the experiences of their lives. The Bolsheviks were never under any snobbish prejudice or held any patrician derision for the independent experience of the people in struggle. Conversely they took it as their starting point and built upon it. Where the reformists and the pseudo-revolutionaries moaned and groaned about the hardships, obstacles and difficulties, the Bolsheviks took them head on.

Trotsky defines them in his epic work, History of the Russian Revolution: “The Bolsheviks were revolutionaries of the deed and not a gesture, of the essence and not the form. Their policy was determined by the real grouping of forces, and not by sympathies and antipathies…Bolshevism created the type of authentic revolutionist who subordinates to historic goals irreconcilable with contemporary society the conditions of his personal existence, his ideas, and his moral judgements. The necessary distance from bourgeois ideology was kept up in the party by a vigilant irreconcilability, whose inspirer was Lenin. Lenin never tired of working with his lancet, cutting off those bonds, which a petty bourgeois environment creates between the party and official social opinion. At the same time Lenin taught the party to create its own social opinion, resting upon the thoughts and feelings of the rising class. Thus by a process of selection and education and in a continual struggle, the Bolshevik party created not only a political but a moral medium of its own, independent of bourgeois social opinion and implacably opposed to it. Only this permitted the Bolsheviks to overcome the wavering in their own ranks and reveal in action the courageous determination without which the October victory would have been impossible.”

After the victorious insurrection, Lenin spoke to the All Russia Congress of the Soviets: “We shall now proceed to build, on the space cleared by historical rubbish, the airy, towering edifice of socialist society.” The revolution ushered in a new era of socio-economic transformation. Landed estates, heavy industry, corporate monopolies and the commanding heights of the economy were expropriated by the nascent workers state. The dictatorship of the financial oligarchy was broken; the state had a monopoly on all foreign trade and commerce. Ministerial perks and privileges were abolished and the leaders of the revolution lived in most modest conditions. Victor Serge in his, Memoirs of a Revolutionary wrote: “In the Kremlin Lenin still occupied a small apartment built for a palace servant. In the recent winter he, like everyone else, had no heating. When he went to the barber’s he took his turn, thinking it unseemly for anyone else to give way to him.”

Initially the new government was a coalition of the Bolsheviks, Left Social Revolutionaries and the Menshevik Internationalists. Only the fascist Black Hundreds were banned and even the Kadets, the bourgeois liberal party, was allowed to operate after the revolution. The new government was based on the most democratic system ever seen in history, the soviets, i.e. workers, soldiers and peasants councils at the grassroots level that were devised to manage and democratically control the economy, agriculture, industry, army and society. What this revolution really meant for the oppressed and exploited working classes of Russia was portrayed in an inspiring anecdote by John Reed: “Across the horizon spread the glittering lights of the Capital, immeasurably more splendid by the night than by the day, like a dike of jewels heaped on a barren plain. The old workman who drove the wheelbarrow held in one hand, while with the other he swept the pavement, looked at the far gleaming capital and exclaimed in an exulted gesture, ‘Mine!’ he cried, his face all alight. ‘All mine now! My Petrograd!”

Bolshevik_revolution_1917Sometimes decades pass and not much happens. At other times more events take place in days than those that occurred in decades. After the collapse of the Soviet Union twenty years ago we were relentlessly told the great political and economic questions had all been settled and that liberal democracy and free-market capitalism had triumphed. Socialism had been consigned to the dustbin of history. The strategists of capital were exultant. Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the “end of history”. This cliché became the much-flaunted jargon of the upstart intelligentsia at the turn of the twenty-first century. The events on a single day on 15th September 2008 glaringly exposed a voracious model of capitalism forced down the throats of the world as the only way to run a modern economy, at the cost of grotesque inequality, exploitation, wars and colonial occupations; it has now come down crashing. The baleful twins of neoconservatism and neoliberalism had been tried and tested to destruction. Of all the parodies of popular representation in which history is so rich, Pakistan’s political elite is perhaps the most absurd. While the cliché that ‘socialism is dead’ was reverberated by the intelligentsia, the right wing politicians frighteningly warn about a bloody revolution. But the Bolshevik Revolution (which was relatively peaceful) is deliberately ignored as if it never even happened. Mentioning Bolshevism gets the rude reply, “Oh! The one that failed in Russia.” The relative weight of slander in society still awaits its sociologist.

If the revolutionary victory has to be explained from a scientific analysis, the Marxists also have a historical responsibility to give a scientific explanation of the degeneration and collapse of the Soviet Union. But Marxism is a science of perspective and it is a mediocrity of knowledge to analyse events after they have taken place. The historical truth is that it was only the Marxists who predicted the fall of the Soviet Union far in advance. On March 7, 1918, Lenin weighed upon the situation, “Regarded from a world-historical point of view, there would be no hope of the ultimate victory of our revolution if it were to remain alone, if there were no revolutionary victories in other countries… our salvation from all these difficulties is an all-European revolution, if the German revolution does not come, we are doomed.” The Russian revolution of 1917 had immense international repercussions. It triggered revolutionary upheavals far beyond the frontiers of the USSR.

The imperialist masters were petrified. The British Prime Minister Lloyd George wrote to Clemenceau, his French counterpart in1919: “The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. The whole existing order is questioned by the masses.” To crush the epicentre of the revolutionary upheavals they launched a massive attack on the nascent Soviet state with twenty-one imperialist armies. Although only nine people died during the actual insurrection, the imperialist aggression brought drastic carnage, bloodshed, mayhem, starvation and destruction to a backward country already devastated by war.

On the basis of extreme deprivation and pulverisation of the masses aggravated by the civil war and the blockade, the “struggle for individual existence”, in the words of Karl Marx, did not disappear or soften but assumed in the subsequent period a ferocious character. The defeats of the revolutions in Germany (1918-19 and 1923), China (1924-25), Britain (1926) and several other countries were a fatal blow for the Bolshevik Revolution. They intensified its isolation and induced nationalist degeneration. The combination of the heroic fight by the Red Army, support of the proletariat and soldiers of invading countries defeated the imperialist aggression. Innumerable Bolshevik cadres perished in fighting to defend the revolution. This created a vacuum in which the opportunist and the careerist elements penetrated the Soviet government. The shortages of commodities, the collapse of industry and agriculture due to the war brought a generalised misery that played an important role in the bureaucratic degeneration.

Lenin struggled against this degeneration before his early death in 1924. Lenin’s last testament, which called for a struggle against this bureaucratic deformation was concealed in the iron vaults of the Kremlin, and finally exposed in 1956 at the 20th Congress of the CPSU. Trotsky created a left opposition and put up a valiant resistance against this degeneration but that was crushed because of the ebbing of the revolutionary tide. This led to the consolidation of a bureaucratic totalitarian apparatus with huge perks and privileges. The maximum wage differentials of 1:4 were abolished. This political reaction against the October revolution was so repressive that by 1940 there was only one survivor, apart from Stalin of the central committee of the Bolshevik Party that had led the revolution in 1917. All others were either exterminated, died, committed suicide, were incarcerated or exiled.

But in spite of this Stalinist degeneration of the revolution, the economy remained a planned one. The bureaucracy was not a class that owned the means of production but was a caste or a clique, which controlled and usurped the surplus. Inspite of these severe setbacks the economy of the USSR grew at a pace that capitalism never achieved anywhere. Ted Grant wrote in his brilliant work, Russia — From Revolution to Counter Revolution, “In the fifty years from 1913 (the height of pre-war production) to 1963, despite two world wars, foreign intervention and civil war, and other calamities total industrial output rose more than 52 times. The corresponding figure for the USA was less than six times, while Britain struggled to double its output.

In other words, Soviet Union was transformed from a backward agricultural economy into the second most powerful nation on earth, with a mighty industrial base, a high cultural level and more scientists than the USA and Japan combined. Life expectancy more than doubled and child mortality fell by nine times. Such economic advance, in such a short a time, has no parallel anywhere in the world.” The equality and full involvement of women were ensured in all spheres of social, economic and political life — the provision of free school meals, milk for children, pregnancy consultation centres, maternity homes, crèches and other facilities free of cost were provided by the workers state. The superiority of the planned economy was proved to the world not in the language of dialectics but in the language of unprecedented social and material advances.

However as the economy expanded rapidly it became more sophisticated, complex and advanced. An economy producing one million commodities cannot be run by the same methods as those for an economy producing 1,500 items. Trotsky had once said that “For a planned economy, workers democracy is as essential as oxygen is for the human body.” By the late 1960s the economic growth had begun to falter. By 1978 it plummeted to zero percent. The dead weight of mismanagement, waste, corruption and bureaucracy weighed down heavily on the economy, eventually dragging it to a standstill. The isolation of the revolution, nationalist caricature of socialism and the lack of workers democratic control and management of the economy and society were the real reasons for the degeneration of the Russian revolution, not the so-called ‘failure of socialism’. What actually existed in the Soviet Union at the time of its collapse was not socialism or communism but its caricature, Stalinism.

Capitalism has proved to be a historically doomed system and can only cause more pain, agony and grief to the human race. Marx and Engels understood from the beginning that the crisis of the capitalist system is the crisis of overproduction or overcapacity. The crisis of capitalism has only brought humanity misery, poverty and disease. It threatens the very existence human civilisation and culture. The recurrent mass revolts reject capitalism. Ninety-nine years later, the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 is still the only way out.  Now it cannot be confined to national frontiers. A socialist revolution in any major country shall expand rapidly across continents. This shall begin to redeem and fulfil Lenin’s pledge of uniting human race into a world socialist republic.