The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The Russian Revolution of 1917:
The Tremendous Upsurge that Brought the Proletariat to Power

Feb 20, 2017

The following article is taken from Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle), the magazine of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the revolutionary workers group active in France, issue #182, March 2017.

Just one century ago, the spontaneous demonstrations in February 1917 of women workers in Petrograd marked the first stage of the Russian Revolution. Right in the middle of World War I, the proletariat of Russia’s capital took it upon itself to attack the Czarist autocracy, and, in the space of several days, overthrew one of Europe’s most tyrannical regimes. The sudden and violent irruption of the masses onto the stage of history launched an uninterrupted movement consisting of increasingly violent confrontations with other social classes and with the policies of the parties that represented their interests. For eight months, despite the movement’s development at different rates in the cities, the countryside, and across the thousands of miles of the front where the soldiers fought, it did not stop. It continued through periods of stabilization, backward lapses, and blows inflicted by the social forces who had decided to put an end to this revolution. Contrary to the hopes of the Russian bourgeoisie and of imperialism, the exploited did not fall back in line. Learning more and more each day how to recognize their allies and unmask their false friends, they finally were able to put themselves forward as candidates to lead society.

On October 25th, 1917, the proletariat overthrew the government of the bourgeoisie in order to found the first workers’ state in history – in a territory representing one sixth of the earth’s land area. Capitalism witnessed its first major defeat at the hands of the working class. For the Bolsheviks who led this October insurrection, this victory was only the start of the worldwide revolution indispensable for ending the domination of capital and laying the foundations of a communist society.

In this global class struggle, revolutionary Russia remained isolated, notably because of the policy of the European socialist parties, which formed a rampart against the revolutionary wave, but also because of the weakness of the young communist parties that formed in the wake of the Russian Revolution. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which formed in the following years, would suffer long-lasting setbacks as the result. And the ebb of the revolution ultimately favored the rise and then the domination of a parasitical layer in the workers’ state, of which Stalin was the main leader.

This degeneration increased up until the disappearance of the USSR as a state twenty-five years ago. However, it cannot wipe out the enormous feat that the Russian proletariat accomplished.

The Russian Working Class Accomplished the Tasks that the Bourgeoisie and the Peasantry Were Unable to Carry Out

Writing to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the October Revolution just after the Red Army’s victory over the forces of the counterrevolution, Lenin recalled that the main goal of the revolution had been “to destroy the survivals of medievalism and sweep them away completely, to purge Russia of this barbarism, of this shame, and to remove this immense obstacle to all culture and progress in our country.” He added that the working masses could be proud of having “cleansed out all that monarchist muck,” as no one had done before, “with greater determination and much more rapidly, boldly and successfully, and … much more widely and deeply, than the great French Revolution over one hundred and twenty-five years ago.”

Tearing out the very roots of feudalism and servitude had a major historical significance, given the reactionary grip in which the Czarist empire held the European continent for centuries. But it was just as important for the communist movement that these bourgeois-democratic tasks of the revolution could have been successfully carried out only by the proletariat. More than 10 years before the proclamation of a Provisional Government headed by the liberal bourgeoisie, the Bolshevik current stated that this bourgeoisie was incapable of playing the progressive role that its Dutch, English, and French predecessors did in their respective countries in the 17th and 18th centuries. This, with certain nuances of formulation, was also Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. The newly born Russian bourgeoisie was subordinate to the big foreign capitalist powers and ultimately owed its own development and status to them. This bourgeoisie had demonstrated its powerlessness and its senile character. Its fear of the working class and the threat that this young and combative class already represented for its domination rendered the Russian bourgeoisie incapable of attaining the goals of a bourgeois revolution.

The Russian revolution was the demonstration – and on such a scale! – that in the countries dominated by imperialism, whether or not in colonial form, only the working class could accomplish these tasks. And this was true in an infinitely deeper sense when the working class placed itself at the head of the oppressed classes, and first of all of the poor peasantry. The debate that had lasted for a quarter-century between the Menshevik and Bolshevik currents – as well as between the revolutionary wing of European Social Democracy and its most opportunist current – was in this way definitively resolved.

These conclusions still force themselves on us today, in a world where the numerical forces of the proletariat have never been so important. The historical responsibility of Stalinism and of its Maoist variation – and to a lesser extent of all those within the Trotskyist movement who have forgotten this fundamental lesson – was to have pretended the opposite for decades. These currents claimed that the peasantry and the intellectual petty bourgeoisie, even the army, could replace the intervention and leading role of the working class.

Communism can only be, as Marx wrote decades earlier, accomplished by the workers themselves.

The Foundations for an Enormous Work of Liberation

The liberating power of the October Revolution could immediately be seen in many areas of life, despite the backwardness of Russia in 1917 and the civil war that the big powers enflamed over its territory for several years.

The nationalization of the land and the possibility for peasant committees to freely organize its redistribution and cultivation responded to the needs of the small peasantry, which made up the immense majority of the population.

After the Russian bourgeoisie took power in February, it demonstrated its inability to provide a real solution to the question of nationalities in that “prison of peoples” that Russia had been for centuries. It fell to the proletarian revolution to throw open the gates of this prison. More than half of the Empire’s inhabitants belonged to non-Russian populations whose basic cultural rights, notably to speak their own languages, were systematically trampled. The Jewish population was forced to endure the regime’s antisemitism and the pogroms that its henchmen carried out, and Jewish people were required to live only in certain regions of the Empire and blocked from holding many positions.

By recognizing the rights of peoples to self-determination, including even to completely separate from the new system, the Bolsheviks made a proof – which was already concrete – that they turned their backs on the policies of the old regime. But they did not just content themselves with recognizing this right: at the same time, they addressed the exploited classes across the Russian Empire proposing to unite with them to fight against the bourgeoisie and construct a new society. Some territories like Finland and Poland essentially took their independence, in large part under the armed protection of the imperialist powers hoping to contain the rising wave of revolution, including with the bloodiest means. However, this policy enabled the construction of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR, where the rights of the peoples who formed it were guaranteed.

The revolution also accomplished an immense feat in the area of culture in the broadest sense of the word. Literacy was the foundation for this, and it required the mass training of teachers, the construction of libraries, schools, and universities, which were more effective in fighting religious backwardness than any number of speeches. The U.S. journalist John Reed described it in this way: “All Russia was learning to read, and reading – politics, economics, history – because the people wanted to know.... The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the Revolution into a frenzy of expression.”

This translated into a desire to make the works and culture of the past accessible to the greatest number of people, whether via museums, theaters, outdoor performances. It also meant that society was established on foundations which, while they may not have been completely new given that they were still products of the past society, still allowed for the emergence of new ways of living and different relationships between human beings and between generations.

The October Revolution also laid down the bases for a real equality between men and women, starting from the earliest age. This was something that had never been accomplished even in the bourgeois democracies, even, in most cases, up to this day. Added to legal equality, was the right to vote and hold any public office, as well as the right of couples to live in a free union decided only by themselves, as well as the right to divorce upon a simple request, to get an abortion, and to have paid maternity leave. In order to ensure the full realization of these measures, a policy for the creation of collective nurseries and kitchens was put into practice.

Up until the revolution, the majority of the young population had been forced to exhaust themselves in the fields or in industrial slavery. But afterward, besides greater access to education, young people could finally experience new rights and see new horizons, thanks to the many educational, athletic, and cultural structures that were set up. The enthusiasm and energy generated from the hopes of October often were enough to make up for much of the lack of material resources.

However, the accomplishment of these progressive reforms could not take place unless the Soviet population set out at the same time to build a socialist society on the widest possible scale. Summing up the dialectical relationships between the bourgeois revolution and the socialist revolution, Lenin wrote in 1921: “The first develops into the second. The second, in passing, solves the problems of the first. The second consolidates the work of the first. Struggle, and struggle alone, decides how far the second succeeds in outgrowing the first.”

The Birth of the First Workers’ State

The relations of force between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat at the national and international levels were what determined the rhythms under which the unique was incarnated in the power exerted by a wide range of organs of revolutionary democracy: factory committees, unions, workers’ associations and soviets.

And so began the construction of a new economy, freed from the reign of private property and the parasitism of stockholders and profit. It was on this basis, and due to the dynamism unique to the first workers’ state, that planning on an extremely vast scale could be put in place in the following period – despite the conservatism and increasing weight of the bureaucracy. This organization placed humanity on a path that no other society has yet explored and it allowed the Soviet Union to experience an unprecedented growth of industry, even at the very moment when the capitalist economy had sunk into the most brutal crisis of its history.

The Bolsheviks knew in advance that this path was full of dangers. This was confirmed during the three years of civil war and “war communism,” when the most extreme measures were adopted to save the revolution. Next, still confronted with both the pressure of imperialism and the internal pressure of the peasantry, came the withdrawal enacted by the reforms of the “New Economic Policy” (NEP) in March 1921. The regime had no other choice but to grant a “limited place for a limited time to capitalism,” as Lenin said, without reversing the fundamental conquests of October. However, the leaders of the revolution were conscious of the work that had already begun. In his speech on the 4th anniversary of the October Revolution that has already been quoted, Lenin recognized a “series of serious reverses and mistakes,” but nevertheless affirmed that those who had been among the first to engage in the struggle could “be proud” to usher in “a new era in world history,” that of the rule of the working class. He added: “We have made the start. When, at what date and time, and the proletarians of which nation will complete this process is not important. The important thing is that the ice has been broken; the road is open, the way has been shown.” And conscious workers can still feel proud of all this today.

They can also be proud of their predecessors who started the first attempt at collectivization and demonstrated, to use Trotsky’s words, “the possibility, with the aid of socialist methods, of raising the productivity of collective labor to an unheard-of height. This conquest, of world historical importance, cannot be taken away from us by anybody or anything” (Speech in Copenhagen for the fifteenth anniversary of the October Revolution). Even the Soviet Union’s economic isolation and the parasitism of the Soviet bureaucracy in its most abject form, which suffocated the working class and Soviet democracy in the following period, did not succeed in erasing this historic fact.

The International Character of the Revolution

It was already clear to the revolutionary socialists at the start of the 20th century that the productive forces born of the Industrial Revolution had long outgrown national barriers. They understood that socialist society would be impossible to realize within the constraints of national borders.

This revolution came into being with the world war and the contradictions of capitalism in its imperialist stage, but it remained isolated only within the borders of the USSR. This isolation would later tragically confirm the impossibility of building socialism in a single country, contrary to what Stalin and his clique began to claim in 1924. In so doing, they betrayed the struggles of millions of proletarians and what had been the entire policy of the Bolshevik Party from its creation.

The struggles of the Russian working class were a continuation of the fights carried out by several generations well beyond Russia’s borders. Its leaders themselves came out of the current of European socialism, in which they were formed and functioned as militants. Their struggle formed a part of a much larger class war, pitting proletarians all across the world against the ruling classes. And while the revolution occurred in the weakest link of the chain that tied the capitalist countries together, their goal was to break the entire chain and free humanity from its grasp.

This was the reason for the existence of the Third International. It was the natural extension of the Russian Revolution, providing proletarians from all over the world, whether colonized peoples or workers within the fortresses of imperialism, with a common perspective and a general staff for the proletarian revolution.

The Role of the Workers’ Party in the Revolution

The victory of the October insurrection was also the proof of the need for the working class to have a tool at its disposal to guarantee its own emancipation and that of the entire society. Although the Bolshevik Party played no more role than other organizations in the start of the revolutionary process of 1917, it was the major weapon that allowed for the victory of the exploited.

Comparing the bourgeois revolutions of the past with the proletarian revolution, Trotsky wrote in “Lessons of October” that: “The bourgeoisie would bide its time to seize a favorable moment when it could profit from the movement of the lower classes, throw its whole social weight into the scale, and so seize the state power. The proletarian revolution is precisely distinguished by the fact that the proletariat – in the person of its vanguard – acts in it not only as the main offensive force but also as the guiding force. The part played in bourgeois revolutions by the economic power of the bourgeoisie, by its education, by its municipalities and universities, is a part which can be filled in a proletarian revolution only by the party of the proletariat. The role of the party has become all the more important in view of the fact that the enemy has also become far more conscious.”

For the Bolshevik Party, this ability was even greater in Russia in 1917 insofar as the party was a living body, linked to the working class through numerous institutions, in the neighborhoods of the industrial cities, the factory committees, the unions, and even the army. This is the opposite of the deformed image presented by both the historians of the bourgeoisie and the Stalinist view of a vanguard making decisions in place of the masses. This pressure that the working class exerted within its own ranks even allowed it to counter “organizational conservatism,” to use Trotsky’s expression, referring to the almost inevitable inertia that developed in the party. Notably, this working-class pressure allowed Lenin to win the political struggle that he began upon his return to Russia in April 1917 in order to correct the party’s course and set it back on the path toward the goal of taking power. The Bolshevik Party, Trotsky wrote, was “the living condensation of the modern history of Russia, of all that was dynamic in it.”

He concluded: “Without a Party which is able to orientate itself in its environment, appreciate the progress and rhythm of events and win the confidence of the masses in time, the victory of the proletarian revolution is impossible.” The whole subsequent history of the revolutionary movement up until the present day, starting with the failure of the European revolutions of 1918 to 1923, then with that of the Chinese Revolution of 1925–1927 and so many others after that, has tragically confirmed this.

Lessons for Today and for Tomorrow’s Fights

Because the October Revolution so deeply attacked bourgeois property relations and because of its achievements, it has, to use yet another expression of Trotsky, “no reason whatever to bow its head before the capitalists accusers and speak the language of apology.” However, the historical circumstances in which it took place – including its isolation, the international counteroffensive of the bourgeoisie, and the degeneration of the dictatorship of the proletariat into a dictatorship over the proletariat – all restricted the construction of a new society to only its first stage.

Today, the material, technical, and scientific bases for a communist society managed and controlled in a conscious way by the working classes are well beyond what they were one century ago.

And so, while capitalism and the domination of the bourgeoisie plunge humanity deeper into chaos and uncertainty every day, we must carry out, not only the transmission of the enormous wealth of experience that was the revolution of 1917, but also the resurgence of Bolshevism, which Trotsky defined in the “Lessons of October” as, “a system of revolutionary training for the proletarian uprising.”

It was within this method of training that Trotsky, along with an entire generation of communists, undertook a struggle to oppose the Stalinist bureaucracy’s political counterrevolution and to rebuild a workers’ international. And it is also within this method that the generations of today and tomorrow will be able to learn, have their own experiences, and enrich the common heritage of the revolutionary workers’ movement, finally leading humanity toward its emancipation.