Oct 20, 2017
The following text is the translation of a presentation given at the Leon Trotsky Circle by the French revolutionary group, Lutte Ouvrière, in Paris, France on October 20, 2017.
I first took up the revolutionary struggle in 1962, fifty-five years ago, with the conviction that workers, the exploited, would revolt and would change society. In doing so, I joined a current of ideas, the revolutionary communist current, which, after Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky, made this its perspective.
Our political capital drew on the history of workers’ struggles and on that exceptional revolution that was the Russian Revolution, which is today in its hundredth year.
Talking about it today may leave certain people skeptical. After one century, many things have changed, in Russia and in the world. But it is still dominated by the capitalist system. And the war, famine, and oppression that were at the origin of the Russian Revolution are still present. Today’s society has sunk into economic crisis, increasing social inequalities, warlike chains of events all across the world, and the rise of nationalism and racism. And so, yes, the perspective of changing the world from top to bottom is still the one we hold today.
The accumulated defeats and the retreat of the workers’ movement cause many people to say that it isn’t possible for things to change. Is the working class still capable of revolting and throwing itself into such a fight? Can a new revolution take place? Plenty of women and men must have been asking themselves these same questions in Russia in 1917. And what did they hear from their coworkers or fellow members of the regiment? That their ideas of revolution were nothing but a utopia!
And they took power in October 1917. In October 1917, it was our class, the workers, young and less young, like you and I, who took power. For us, it is an invaluable event, one which proves that we are capable of that.
The revolution of 1917 ended by degenerating into a Stalinist dictatorship, and many use this to demonstrate that struggle is useless and doomed to failure. But Stalinism was not the continuation of the revolution—it was its negation. Stalin and the bureaucracy betrayed the international perspectives of the 1917 revolution and liquidated the Bolshevik militants who formed its spearhead.
But it is thanks to the militants who resisted within the Trotskyist current that we are here today. It is thanks to them that we can transmit the heritage of the generations that came before us, the heritage of generations who dreamed of revolution and of those who made it happen.
In 1848, in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels became the first people to highlight the revolutionary role of the working class. The perspective that they laid out—that of a society superior to capitalism, a society without exploitation, without private property in the means of production, and without social classes—was an intellectual advance. It was the fruit of their reasoning based on the evolution of societies, their analysis of capitalism, and an observation of the first workers’ struggles.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 made this perspective concrete. Indeed, 100 years ago on October 25th, 1917, the Russian workers and peasants overthrew the bourgeois government and captured power.
This was not the first workers’ revolution—far from it! In March 1871, there was the fantastic experience of the Paris Commune, during which the lower classes, who ended up in power almost by accident, took society in their hands and reorganized it in their own way, in the interest of the poorest. The Communards then created an administration and a state in their own image, with elected officials chosen from among the common people, workers and artisans, paid an average salary and subject to recall at all times …. But the revolutionary experience of the Commune was limited to Paris and lasted for only three months.
In 1917, in Russia, the exploited succeeded this time in taking power and holding it at the level of an immense country with 160 million inhabitants. For the first time, a government raised the banner of the overthrow of capitalism at the global level and worked towards the construction of a rational and planned economy capable of responding to the needs of all humanity: a communist society.
For us, this revolution is much more than an exciting chapter of history. It is the living proof that the oppressed are capable of taking power and that once in power, they can deeply transform society and open a new era for humanity.
This should bolster all those today who hope to change the world.
Far from having been a coup by the Bolshevik Party or a power play by Lenin, as the revolution’s detractors claim, October 1917 was the culmination of a powerful drive towards liberation on the part of workers and peasants that had begun in February 1917.
And so, we will take a step backwards to this moment. It all started on February 23rd, 1917 (or March 8th by the calendar used in the West), in the capital of czarist Russia, present-day St. Petersburg. For more than a month, agitation had been growing in the different factories of the city. The workers had had enough after 3 years of war and hardship.
On February 23rd, which was International Women’s Day, the women workers of the textile factories went on strike to protest against the new bread rations. They brought the metalworkers from the neighboring factories out with them. Although there had been no call to strike on that day, there were 90,000 strikers with demonstrations and meetings in the main working-class neighborhoods. This was the start of the revolution.
During the four days that followed, many strikes, demonstrations, and street battles took place. The movement transformed into a political insurrection. The workers were not only demanding bread, but also an end to this terrible war waged for the imperialist aims of the czar and his allies. They wanted an end to the czarist regime.
They armed themselves against the police who fired into the crowds. They entered into contact with the soldiers stationed in the capital in order to convince them not to fire on their brothers and they rallied the soldiers to the revolution. On February 27th, the capital was under the control of the workers and the soldiers who had mutinied. Several days later, Moscow and then the provincial cities followed this example, and on March 3rd, the Czar abdicated. A few days were enough to cause the fall of Nicholas II, who had been in power for 20 years, and whose dynasty had lasted 3 centuries.
The overthrow of the Romanov dynasty sent shockwaves across all of Europe. Since the French Revolution, czarism had been the bastion of reaction in Europe. It was the executioner of many popular uprisings, not only in Russia, but also in Poland and Hungary.
And in Russia, time had seemed to stand still in many respects. In 1917, the czar still pretended to hold his power by the grace of cod. The nobles and big landowners held titles and privileges giving them almost the power of life and death over the peasantry and the lower classes. The Russian Empire, dubbed “the prison of the peoples,” reigned with an iron fist over several different nationalities—Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Baltic peoples, and Armenians, among others. It was well-known for its political police, who would pursue the regime’s opponents as far as the heart of London, Paris, and Brussels.
The fall of the Czar and his regime lifted the lead weight that had hung over the workers and soldiers and formed the starting point of a powerful revolutionary upsurge. In a few weeks, the whole country became covered with factory committees, unions, and soviets.
These soviets did not come out of nowhere. The Russian working class had already experienced a revolution in 1905. The striking workers of that time had felt the need to organize and coordinate their actions. Factory by factory, neighborhood by neighborhood, they sent delegates chosen from among themselves to sit in the workers’ assembly of the city. These councils (soviets in Russian) existed in about 50 cities and over the course of events became the only authority in which the workers had confidence. These events served as a dress rehearsal.
This experience had not been forgotten in 1917, and soviets spread all across the country like wildfire. Not only the workers in the factories, but also the soldiers in garrisons and at the front organized their own elections to send their representatives to the soviet. And starting from the moment when the soviet was first constituted in Petrograd (St. Petersburg), it became the organizational center of the revolution.
As the U.S. journalist Albert Rhys Williams, a witness to these events, recounted: “The Soviets consequently were filled, not with glibly talking politicians, but with men who knew their business; miners who understood mining, machinists who understood machinery, peasants who understood land, soldiers who understood war, teachers who understood children.”
It was because it was composed of soldiers, miners, and machinists that the Petrograd soviet took a series of revolutionary measures as early as its first sessions.
It enacted a charter of freedoms for the army, even in the midst of war: all contingents of troops were to elect their committees; arms were to be under the control of the company and battalion committees and “shall by no means be issued to the officers;” the military salute and hierarchical ranks were suppressed while off duty; officers were forbidden to treat soldiers rudely, particularly to talk down to them by using the familiar form of address in Russian, etc
In order to feed the population of the cities, the soviet elected a commission tasked with tracking the provision of supplies and monitoring speculators and the black market. And since money is the nerve of war, it sent its guards to occupy the State Bank of the Russian Empire, the Treasury, and the Mint. Whether it wished to do so or not, the soviet acted like a government in its earliest days.
And that was not all! The workers did not wait around with folded arms for the soviet to resolve problems in their place. When they returned to their factories, the workers in Petrograd met and organized themselves into committees. They demanded the dismissal of supervisors and bosses who had acted like tyrants, abused their authority, taken bribes, or acted on behalf of the police.
Sometimes the bosses were simply sent packing. Other times, as at the Putilov metalworks, which was the largest in Petrograd with 25,000 workers, the manager and his assistant were killed. At the Baranovsky factory, the workers fired 25 members of the management staff and paraded 18 of them around on carts for having acted like tyrants. At the Triangle factory, foremen suspected of having hidden tools and disorganized production met with the same fate.
These factory committees sprouted up like mushrooms, in both state-run factories and privately-owned factories. In one factory, the committee reserved the right to investigate management and to check the accounts. In another, it voted for new directors. In a third, it controlled hiring and firing.
Certain factory committees limited themselves to union duties, while others went so far as to run the workplaces themselves. All over, workers imposed the eight-hour workday, wage increases, and job security.
Besides soviets and factory committees, workers everywhere pushed for the organization of unions. In the largest factories, they even created their own armed militias to guarantee their power.
In only a few weeks, the workers transformed the prison that Russia had been into a country where workers’ democracy existed as it did nowhere else. The workers did not impose their law in every workplace, but they did so in many, starting with the largest ones.
It was one hundred years ago that these events took place, and they speak to us, since we are still living through the same class struggle. But to imagine that tomorrow, workers could place their bosses under surveillance, dismiss them, and make decisions in their place, like millions of workers did in Russia, seems impossible.
Certain people tell themselves that since the bosses’ dictatorship is plowing forward today without meeting collective resistance, maybe workers are no longer capable of such fights.
But combativeness and class consciousness are not innate. The oppressed spend most of their time suffering through oppression, which they become used to, and they ignore the resources that they possess among themselves to change things and take hold of society.
The power of the ruling classes rests on material realities and on an entire arsenal of repression, including laws, police, prisons, and a state apparatus that imposes respect for the social order as it is. It also rests on the domination of minds.
Education, culture, and the daily information dispensed by the media which is, for the most part, in the hands of big capital, all express the values of the bourgeoisie: the merit of individual success, submission to the power of money, social conformism, and the acceptance of the established order.
It is explained to us that exploitation is the order of things, and certain people even see it written in what they call human nature. Or it is said that perhaps capitalist society is not the ideal society, but at least it is the least bad. In fact, exploitation is socially tolerated, and moments of revolt are necessarily exceptions.
When we place what is happening today alongside these first weeks of the revolution, the combativeness and consciousness of the present-day working class appears very far from that of the Russian workers of 1917. But in reality, they cannot be compared. Social revolutions are rare events, and once they begin, they transform those who make them.
This is obviously difficult for us to imagine. But those who have lived through important strikes at least have an idea of this, since in the process of struggle, they have seen co-workers transform before their eyes. They have seen those who had gritted their teeth and taken the blows of the bosses unleash their anger and become the most determined fighters.
They have seen workers who had racist or sexist prejudices fight alongside immigrant and female workers. They have seen quiet workers take the floor in general assemblies. They have seen those who never concern themselves “with unions or politics” become involved in the strike committee, fight the police or the bosses’ thugs, and be ready to occupy the factory day and night.
Then imagine what can take place in the heads of workers when they realize that they are millions who are finally ready to no longer let themselves be pushed around. They no longer see things the same way. Society is no longer this unavoidable fate that crushes us, but it becomes a reality that we can act upon.
Every mass uprising testifies to this: the same women and men who had up until then remained paralyzed and passive in the face of injustice, when they plunge into the fight, demonstrate a spirit of initiative, audacity, and energy that they themselves would never have imagined. Outside of these revolutionary periods, these possibilities are stifled by the domination that the exploited endure.
This is true for the working class today and it was the same for the Russian workers and peasants before they threw themselves into the revolution. One should not idealize them. Before their lives and consciousness were overturned by the February insurrection, they resembled today’s working class in many respects.
After ten- or twelve-hour workdays, how many Russian workers drowned their exhaustion in vodka? How many took revenge for the daily humiliations that they suffered on their wives and children?
Young Russians were not sucked into the spectacles of reality TV or video games, and there was no television, or often even electricity. But they were held under the spell of the sermons of Orthodox priests, which inculcated them with a love for the czar and the eternal motherland. They were held in thrall by customs that encouraged submission to a barbaric and unjust order. They imbibed prejudices against other nationalities, against Asians and Jews.
The fighting spirit of the Russian working class also had its high and low points. There had been, of course, the extraordinary experience of the 1905 Revolution. But defeat and repression after this had quickly ushered in a profound demoralization that touched even the most militant people. And, in August 1914, many workers applauded the patriotic and warlike demonstrations that the czarist government had organized.
It would take time for revolt to break out. Plunged into the hell of war, the Russian people tolerated the intolerable for three long years. In February 1917, about 2 million Russian soldiers had already been killed, and there were 3 million wounded. Troops were sent to the front with no weapons. In other words, the peasants were literally led to the slaughterhouse by incompetent and disdainful officers. And things were not much better on the home front, where peasants and workers suffered through hunger, cold, and workplace accidents and could be arrested or beaten like beasts of burden.
Who would have said that a revolution would break out in February 1917? No one, not even those who hoped for it with all their being. Lenin, who was in exile in Switzerland at the time, held a conference on February 22nd, 1917, where he essentially explained that his generation would doubtlessly not see the revolution and that this task would fall to a new generation. And several days later, the revolution broke out in Russia.
It was in the course of events that the combativeness and consciousness of the Russian workers made giant leaps. With the fall of the czarist regime, they discovered that they were not destined to serve as cannon fodder, or profit fodder, and that they could determine their own lives. They gained confidence in themselves.
Millions of women and men who, in normal times, would not have taken interest in politics and matters of society launched themselves headlong into action. Everyone felt involved, wanted to know, to form an idea and participate. Starting in February, and lasting for weeks, meetings were held on all street corners and in gathering places. Factory committees and soviets met daily. Newspapers and tracts spread like wildfire, turning up not only at factory gates, but also in the army and at the front, as if the life of each person depended on them. Workers were writing their own history and they were quite aware of it.
Today, we hear the word “revolution” used to describe anything and everything. The left-wing French populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon talks about a “revolution at the polls,” and French president Emmanuel Macron calls his general assault against the working class a “revolution.” All of this is ridiculous.
In the first place, and above all, a revolution means millions of women and men deciding to take hold of their fate and, acting collectively, to transform and surpass themselves. I have referred to the Paris Commune, and we are discussing the Russian Revolution, but think also of the mass movements that were the Chinese, Vietnamese, Algerian, and Cuban Revolutions.
Why did these peoples who all threw themselves into incredibly uneven struggles ultimately win? They fought, sometimes barehanded, against imperialist powers armed to the teeth and they prevailed because their desire for emancipation, their certainty of fighting for a just cause, and their discovery of the dignity of a whole people could move mountains. It is this momentum that opens perspectives for all of society. As Marx said, revolutions are the locomotives of history.
It is for this kind of period, when everything becomes possible, that we carry out our activity.
We want to build a revolutionary party because we know that in this kind of period, having one is decisive. In Russia, without the Bolshevik Party led by Lenin, the working class would not have taken power.
In February, and I will repeat it, in the midst of all-out war, the masses were capable of a great many things: demonstrating, going on strike, clearing out police stations, arming themselves … even overthrowing czarism. They even began to build their own organs of power, through the soviets. But the bourgeoisie succeeded in keeping state power.
The very same day when the Petrograd soviet met for the first time, some bankers, men of the law, and professors for their part proclaimed a Provisional Government. They made sure they had the support of the general staff of the army and they kept the ministers and whatever was left over from the state apparatus. This government used revolutionary words and symbols, but it desired one thing only: to bury the revolution, to reestablish the authority of the officers and generals in the army, to continue the war, to reestablish bourgeois order in the factories, and even to restore the monarchy!
The composition of this government speaks for itself. The Prime Minister was Prince Lvov, certainly known for his liberal ideas, but a noble all the same. The Minister of War was the president of the War Industry Committees, or in other words, the spokesman of the Russian industrialists who had every interest in the continuation of the war. The post of Minister of Finance fell to a big owner of agricultural estates and sugar refineries. For a revolution made by a people who wanted to sweep away the remains of feudalism, stop the war, and distribute land to the peasants, it was off to a bad start!
The real head of the government was Miliukov, a university professor and leader of the party of the big bourgeoisie, the Kadets. He was well-versed enough in the art of politics to give himself the title of “socialist,” and he gave the job of Minister of Justice to Kerensky, a lawyer linked to the Socialist-Revolutionary Party who had the reputation of being a member of the opposition within the czarist duma, a legislative assembly with little power.
Kerensky was the only minister with whom the workers could identify. As for the rest of the government, they could have nothing but distrust. But they accepted it because the self-proclaimed government was supported by the parties that had until then been the most influential among the workers: the Socialist-Revolutionary Party and the Menshevik Party.
The Socialist-Revolutionary Party was historically based in the countryside and was known by the peasantry for wanting to distribute the land to the peasants. The Menshevik Party was born out of a split with the Bolsheviks in 1903. It identified with the ideas of Marx, but it distinguished itself from the Bolsheviks, the party of Lenin, by its desire to build alliances with the bourgeoisie.
All throughout the year 1917, the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks trailed after the bourgeoisie. Russia, which was three-fourths agricultural and still dominated by a number of big landowners, was only at the very beginning of its capitalist development. For them, the revolution was therefore, like the French Revolution of 1789, destined to bring the bourgeoisie to power.
This question of power is the crux of all revolutions. A revolution is a period when the social classes, the exploited and their exploiters, battle for the leadership of society. In February, the question posed was: who should lead society? The capitalists and the big landowners with the Provisional Government, or the workers, toilers, and poor peasants with the soviets?
In February 1917, the workers let themselves be deprived of power for the benefit of the bourgeois government.
There is a classic phenomenon found in all revolutions: the workers and the oppressed generally do not believe themselves to be capable of exercising state power.
The functioning of capitalist society and the bosses’ dictatorship place the workers in the situation of subordinates who are only there to obey and keep quiet. They never have the possibility of giving their opinions or of participating in decisions even within the workplaces where they spend their lives and which they make run.
And it is the same thing at the level of the whole society. Certainly, those with the right to vote, and still only those who have the right to vote, can regularly slip their ballot into a box. But this has little to do with the real possibility of expressing oneself, and still less with that of making decisions.
And then, we are told from birth that everyone should remain in their place, that power and important decisions should be left to those who have completed their studies, who have particular abilities and experience. In other words, to the bourgeoisie and its offspring.
Elite schools have even been created to train those who occupy the summits of the state apparatus: in France, these are called Polytechnique, Sciences Politiques, ENA, etc. All of this pomp, that which is called the luxury of the republic, like the Elysée Palace, for example, is there to impress the population and keep it at a distance from the sites of power. Yes, the idea that power can come from below, with the active participation of the whole working class, absolutely does not seem natural.
The bourgeoisie, on the other hand, is used to holding power and to issuing orders. Because it possesses capital, it assumes the right to lead and to make all decisions, including those that concern the futures of thousands of people, of whole regions, or even the future of humanity!
Even though it is the workers who get their hands dirty at construction sites or who risk their health on the production lines of big agriculture or the auto factories, what is it that we hear? That it is the bosses and the very rich who are at the heart of everything, since it is they who provide work to wage-earners, because it is they, the bosses, who allow the workers to earn a living! They consider themselves to be the be-all and end-all of society and find it totally natural that they should hold economic and political power.
This is why in every revolution, the bourgeoisie is always one step ahead of the exploited. And the bourgeoisie has seized hold of many revolutions made with the flesh of peasants and proletarians.
“Will the Russian workers still let themselves be deceived?” asked Rosa Luxemburg, the great German revolutionary, when she learned of the events taking place in Russia. And, confident, she responded: “We have no fear. On the contrary, we are confident: the painful experiences of their own class have educated them enough to not let the bourgeoisie take the fruits of a victory that they themselves achieved, whatever the harshness and duration of the struggles it will cost.”
Yes, Rosa Luxemburg could have this confidence because in Russia there was a party to lead this fight: the Bolshevik Party.
It was over this question of power that there was a clash between on the one hand the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries, who both favored compromise with the Provisional Government, and on the other the Bolsheviks, who defended the slogan of “All Power to the Soviets.”
The Bolshevik Party alone launched a campaign of tireless propaganda to popularize this slogan starting in April. It was necessary, as Lenin said at the time, to patiently explain, to help the workers draw the political conclusions from their own experience and from different events in order to understand the necessity of overthrowing the Provisional Government and taking all power through the soviets.
The eight months that separated February and October were the occasion for an accelerated politicization of the masses. There was an intense activity within the soviets, which took a thousand and one initiatives and passionately discussed all political questions. All decisions of the bourgeois government were scrutinized, commented on, and criticized.
The question of peace, which had been a powerful motive behind the February days, was the crucial point. People were waiting for peace … and it was discovered that the government had made a commitment to the French government to continue the war and divvy up the conquests in the event of victory. Worse still, the Provisional Government launched itself in new military adventures, while the soldiers who were no longer willing to go to the front deserted in large numbers!
Workers demanded bread, but the government showed itself incapable of providing it, since it refused to take radical measures against the speculators. The peasants wanted land, but they were asked to wait for the Constituent Assembly, and when they wished to take the lands that they cultivated by themselves, the government sent troops against them.
The Bolsheviks were the only ones to denounce the government, the only ones to demand all power to the soviets, and the only ones to show a way out of a situation that seemed more rotten every day. In this way, although in March they were in the minority in the soviets, they also got to know soldiers and peasants and got more and more of a hearing.
It became more obvious every day that the government was playing a double game and that the promises of the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries were worthless. These parties had tried in vain to reconcile the positions of the government with those of the soviets, and a confrontation was becoming inevitable. This was because the compromise that they called for was based on the illusion that there could be common interests and a sharing of power between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, between exploiters and exploited.
The ruling classes would not tolerable the existence of soviets and factory committees. They wished to keep their property and their social order, and they were preparing to crush the revolution.
The head-on collision took place in July. At the beginning of July, the most combative part of the proletariat and soldiers in Petrograd carried out an armed demonstration against the government. This premature attempt at insurrection was quashed. The counter-revolution would soon raise its head.
Believing that the winds had shifted and that the soviets were weakening, members of the old regime and the bourgeoisie fomented a military coup led by the general Kornilov in August 1917. The coup failed because the workers and the main garrisons of Petrograd mobilized to defend the revolution. Kornilov could not even get his troops to Petrograd, since the railroad workers had sabotaged the rails and switched the signals so that the troops ended up on abandoned sidetracks!
But the lesson was learned: dictatorship and bloody repression of the revolution were just around the corner. Only strong soviets concentrating all power could assure the survival of the revolution. These new events confirmed what the Bolsheviks had been saying and considerably reinforced them. By the end of August, they had majorities in the Petrograd and Moscow soviets, and in September, they won majorities in soviets of the provinces.
The illusions in the compromising Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks had been shattered. From this point on, the masses understood that they had to take all of the power. The hour had struck for a new revolution.
During the night of October 24th–25th, armed workers helped by sailors and several regiments, organized in a Military Revolutionary Committee, captured the phone lines, postal offices, printing presses, train stations, bridges, and state bank. By morning, they were masters of most public buildings. The following night, the Winter Palace—the seat and last bastion of the Provisional Government—was occupied, and the ministers were arrested. On the evening of October 25th, when the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets met, power had fallen entirely to the soviets.
The insurrection sanctioned what had already been a fact for weeks: that the government had lost the confidence of the workers and soldiers. No one obeyed its orders, nor those of the general staff. The government was nothing more than a phantom government. This explains why the insurrection in Petrograd was only a military formality and resulted in almost no deaths.
Technically, militarily, the October insurrection was carried out by a minority of workers and soldiers, but it was no coup, as the Bolsheviks’ detractors would have us believe.
Or if it was, it was a coup of a completely unprecedented character. Because the October insurrection was openly announced, widely debated, and even submitted to a vote.
All throughout the month of October, there were no longer any questions other than insurrection. When the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries rejected it, the Bolsheviks distributed tracts and organized meetings to explain the urgency of carrying one out. Newspaper columns were full of arguments for and against. Should all power be given to the soviets and the Provisional Government overthrown, or not? This was the question that all elections to the soviets revolved around. Voting Bolshevik meant voting for the insurrection. And week after week, the soviets voted overwhelmingly for the Bolsheviks.
Yes, October was certainly a mass insurrection, a revolution, in the sense that the immense majority of workers and soldiers understood the need for it, supported it, and hoped for it.
On the evening of October 25th, the insurrection had not even ended when the All-Russian Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies was already meeting. As Trotsky recounts, they were not well-dressed deputies, smelling of the latest perfume. These were rank-and-file workers, soldiers in rough uniform, and bearded peasants. And it was clearly for this reason that they did what no government had ever done in history: they immediately translated the hopes of the oppressed into action.
As soon as it was proclaimed, the soviet government signed the decrees that the oppressed had awaited for eight months and that the government had always refused to take.
It decreed the armistice, denounced the imperialist aims of the war, published the secret treaties, and called on the peoples of Europe to follow the example of the Russian workers. It decreed the redistribution of land and encouraged the peasants to allocate the fields in order to put an end to the parasitism of the big landowners. Relying on the mobilization of workers in the factories and in poor and working-class neighborhoods, it organized production and provisioning to respond to the urgent needs of the population. It imposed workers’ control and expropriated the bourgeoisie when they did not want to collaborate.
The soviet government also decreed the right of the nationalities under the domination of the Russian Empire to free themselves and become independent if they decided to. It legalized divorce, established equality for women, and did everything possible to free them from domestic tasks and bring them into all levels of power.
No other so-called democratic government had taken so much as half of these measures. To accomplish it, a new type of government would need to come into existence: a government by the exploited, for the exploited.
As Trotsky said, the Bolshevik Party played the role of midwife in a Caesarean section. The majority of Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks did not have confidence in the capacity of the exploited classes to run society, even when they were doing so before their eyes. Even when they saw that it was the soviets who guaranteed food supplies and many other social functions, they preferred to leave them to the bourgeoisie under the pretext that there were not enough workers and that they were not educated enough.
These doubts about the capacity of the workers to govern were also expressed within the Bolshevik Party. It would mean rewriting history to present the Bolshevik Party as a monolithic bloc with militants and leaders marching forward right behind Lenin. Throughout its entire existence, and all the more during these revolutionary years, the Bolshevik Party was continually beset with discussions and disagreements, including when the question of insurrection was on the table.
But the Party and Lenin knew to push through to the end because they had an unshakeable confidence in the working class, in the Russian working class as well as the German, French, and British working classes … whom Lenin was convinced would also launch themselves into revolution.
This confidence was not some kind of blind faith. It was rooted in Marxist ideas and the workers’ movement. Lenin knew the events of the Paris Commune by heart, and he knew of the animation and wealth of initiatives contained within the masses when they are moved by the desire to liberate themselves. And there was also what had happened before his eyes, in Russia.
The workers and peasants in the countryside had for the most part already begun their efforts. The peasant had stopped bowing down to the ground in recognition of the big landowner and stopped begging for a tiny plot of land. From then on, he would summon this same big landowner to an evening meeting so that he would say which land he would cultivate with his own hands and which would be divided up among the other peasants!
In the factories, the workers’ committees got busy. Many of them organized the control of production. Often they established collective cafeterias or organized literacy instruction for the workers. They launched campaigns against alcoholism and created cultural workshops.
In the cities, the visits and requisitions of buildings that the Provisional Government had fought against with all its forces spread at the instigation of local soviets.
Lenin knew that he could rely on all of these initiatives. He knew that the workers’ government would make mistakes, but that it would have the advantage over all other governments that it would not be paralyzed by respect for the property of the rich.
Ten days before the insurrection, in a text entitled Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?, Lenin explained his conception of the future proletarian state in the following way:
“We are not utopians. We know that an unskilled laborer or a cook cannot immediately get on with the job of state administration.… But … we demand an immediate break with the prejudiced view that only the rich, or officials chosen from rich families, are capable of administering the state, of performing the ordinary, everyday work of administration.
We demand that training in the work of state administration be conducted by class-conscious workers and soldiers and that this training be begun at once, i.e., that a beginning be made at once in training all the working people, all the poor, for this work.… The chief thing is to imbue the oppressed and the working people with confidence in their own strength.”
And after October, he did not slow down in his appeals to the masses, as in this article that appeared in the November 5th, 1917 edition of Pravda:
“Comrades, working people! Remember that now you yourselves are at the helm of state. Rally around your Soviets. Strengthen them. Get on with the job yourselves; begin right at the bottom, do not wait for anyone. Establish the strictest revolutionary law and order. Be watchful and guard like the apple of your eye your land, grain, factories, equipment, products, transport—all that from now onwards will be entirely your property, public property.”
We align ourselves with the policies carried out by the Bolshevik Party up until 1923–1924.
The day after the insurrection, all of the parties that participated in the soviets were able to continue their activity, including the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries. The left wing of this party participated in the government for several months.
But for the Russian bourgeoisie, for those with nostalgia for czarism, and for the foreign powers, it was out of the question that the Bolsheviks—and through them, the workers—might hold power. This resulted in a terrible civil war that started at the beginning of 1918 and lasted three years.
During this war, fourteen foreign powers intervened against the young workers’ government, including France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, and the United States. These great powers had torn each other to shreds in World War I, but they found themselves united against the Bolshevik government and sent troops to support the counter-revolutionary “white” armies.
It was in this context of attempted counter-revolution, shortages of supplies, and civil war, that the Bolsheviks were forced to take a series of exceptional measures: censorship, a political police, banning certain parties that resorted to violence against the government.
They reduced democratic life to its simplest expression. To save the revolution, they enacted a dictatorship at the political level and war communism at the economic level, because for three years, the bulk of forces were devoted to the Red Army in order to defend the soviet government.
We assume responsibility for these policies as a whole. We certainly do not hold the idea that the Bolsheviks did not make mistakes. They did so, and Lenin was the first to think and say it. But the entire policy and the choices that were made, including during the civil war, were motivated by the desire to hold onto and defend the revolution until the time when it would spread into other countries.
Today, Lenin and the Bolshevik Party are the target of all kinds of attacks. They claim that Bolshevism carried the seeds of Stalinism within it. By this way of reasoning, one can also say that the storming of the Bastille and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen contained the germ of Napoleon’s despotism and the wars of the Empire that ravaged Europe. And so, we cannot mix together all periods of time.
The Stalinist state, the Stalinist party and its monolithic character, its dictatorial methods, and the Gulag all have nothing to do with what the Bolshevik Party was, nor with this young government under construction that was only able to survive because it was supported by millions of women and men ready to sacrifice themselves for it.
The references and perspectives of Stalin, who claimed at the time to be building socialism in one country, were also the exact opposite of what the revolutionaries had always defended.
It is the Trotskyist current, which as early as 1923 fought against the bureaucracy and the policies that Stalin imposed, keeping the flag of internationalism flying, which represents the true heritage of Bolshevism.
The Bolshevik Party allowed the workers to take power and to begin to deeply transform society. We who yearn for proletarian revolution hope that in the next revolutionary situation, there will exist a party that is up to the task of what it did.
It is fashionable to condemn the general use of violence and to reproach revolutionaries for resorting to it. But it is through violence that oppression maintains itself. Violence is the ultimate weapon of those who dominate, and it is the right and duty of the opposed to meet them with revolutionary violence.
Take the French Revolution, for example. The French government celebrates Bastille Day on July 14th. Incidentally, this allows it to reaffirm the power of the established order, since the highlight of this holiday is a military parade. However, July 14th was a day of insurrection that led to the taking of the Bastille.
And the French Revolution triumphed because there were peasants who got out their pitchforks and burned châteaux; because there were the lower-class “sans-culottes” who were determined enough to set up their revolutionary tribunals, to use the guillotine, and even to cut off the king’s head. If the great mass of the people had not accepted taking up arms and letting “impure blood” flow, as it says in the lyrics of the Marseillaise, the revolution would not have survived the armed coalition of the monarchies.
Yes, violence is a part of revolutions.
But, once again, violence is a fundamental part of capitalist rule. The so-called “democratic” powers constantly resort to it.
Looking only at the period when the Bolsheviks are reproached for having resorted to violence, must we remind ourselves that World War I caused ten million deaths?
That during this war, all of the so-called democracies suppressed freedom of the press, established a forced draft into the army, jailed opponents and even pacifists? And at the fronts, how many French and British soldiers were shot after having been accused of retreat in the face of the enemy?
And don’t forget the colonies, where, after World War I, ferocious repression was carried out to crush any aspiration of freedom, in Ireland, India, Iraq, and Syria. The rulers of the imperialist countries, the Clemenceaus, Churchills, and Wilsons, have the right to monuments and streets named after them. They are not accused of fanaticism or of having blood on their hands, and they are certainly not accused of war crimes.
When it is a matter of the major powers, of their order and their interests, violence is always justified and legitimate. Never when the oppressed respond to it with their own weapons.
The politicians, journalists, and intellectuals of the bourgeoisie wish to cast a warm regard over the struggles of the oppressed … on the condition that they lost! They may shed a tear over the Gavroches who died on the barricades of 1832 (from a scene in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables), and they can even celebrate the memory of the fighters of the Paris Commune, but as for the Russian Revolution, that just won’t do!
Both this revolution and the Bolsheviks call forth a visceral hatred on the part of the bourgeoisie because they won, because the workers took power and turned their world upside-down! And it is exactly for this reason that we align ourselves with what they did and that we admire them.
Falsifiers accuse the Bolsheviks of having forbidden all forms of democracy. On the contrary—the Bolsheviks systematically took the side of working-class democracy. It was they who took up the cause of the factory committees. They who called for all power to the soviets. They who were always favorable towards the workers and soldiers organizing from below, taking initiatives, and acting collectively.
They opposed this direct and popular democracy to bourgeois democracy, which systematically favors the bigwigs, the well-educated, and the fancy speakers, especially in countries like Russia where the overwhelming majority of the population was illiterate.
The opposition between these two types of democracy came to the fore in January 1918, when the Constituent Assembly—the convocation of which had constantly been put off by the bourgeois government—ultimately met in session. This assembly, elected with lists put together before the October Revolution, could not reflect the new mindset of the masses.
For example, the Socialist-Revolutionaries, who had a majority, had presented themselves on single lists even though they had split in October and some participated in the soviet government while others were opposed to it. In fact, this Constituent Assembly refused to recognize the power of the soviets.
Once again, two types of legitimacy stood in opposition: that of the Constituent Assembly and that of the soviets. Once again, the Bolsheviks chose the soviets, the beating heart of the revolution, and they dissolved the Constituent Assembly.
For these people who call themselves democrats, this dissolution is the Bolsheviks’ original sin. For the Russian workers and peasants who were building their new state from below, it was one incident among others during these many months of revolution.
For us still today, soviets are the most complete form of working-class democracy. Taking inspiration from the principles established by the Paris Commune, elected officials were subject to recall and replacement at all times. Their responsibilities brought them no privileges or cushy jobs, and their pay was set at the level of a skilled worker’s wages.
Contrary to the legislative assemblies that we know, the soviets were not set above the population and cut off from the rank and file. In order to apply their decisions, they relied on volunteers from the population and on the most widespread participation of the workers.
However, as Lenin explained in The State and Revolution, although this certainly meant, “an immense expansion of democracy, which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor, democracy for the people, and not democracy for the money-bags,” it was also, “the dictatorship of the proletariat that imposes a series of restrictions on the freedom of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists.”
This expression, “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” which Marx coined, is intolerable to the ears of the bourgeoisie, who impose their own dictatorship over the exploited every day. But this dictatorship of the proletariat corresponds to a state that is infinitely more free than whatever we know in society today. This is precisely because it is the work of millions of women and men who have no privilege to defend, who have no need of the entire repressive apparatus that surrounds the privileged today, who rule amidst an ocean of poverty.
Under the dictatorship of the proletariat, freedoms are no longer limited, flouted, or even completely denied by the power of money. The only freedom that is restricted is the freedom to exploit, but this restriction, yes, we communists are for it.
The Russian Revolution did not result in a communist society. The proletariat lost power to a bureaucracy that gradually took control of the state and then exercised a ferocious dictatorship under Stalin and his successors. And today, in Russia, capitalism has made itself at home.
But in no way does this prove the failure of communism. The degeneration of the workers’ state, this rotting from the inside out, offers whatever proof is needed that the proletarian revolution can only triumph at the level of the whole world. This is because it is at this level that the bourgeoisie established its domination and that capitalism spread.
To provide, using Marx’s words, “to each according to their needs,” and to ask each person to work “according to their abilities,” or in other words to rationally produce enough to satisfy the needs of all, a high development of productive forces is required: significant industrialization, communication and transportation networks, an accumulation of wealth, and a certain level of culture and civilization.
The “socialism in one country” that Stalin invented in the middle of the 1920s is an absurdity. Already in 1917, the economy, industry, and capital were intertwined at an international level. Today, they connect even more tightly. The construction of a superior economy can only take place on this international basis.
It is clearly a sign of our reactionary time period that we are hearing more and more nationalist and protectionist idiocies. There can be no economic paradise in a country bristling with borders and cut off from international exchange.
The Bolsheviks were convinced of this. Lenin once gave the following definition of socialism: “Soviet power, plus electrification.” This brief definition supposes, in any case, the capitalist level of electrification as a minimum point of departure. This was something that was lacking in Russia.
In 1918, he wrote further: “There would doubtlessly be no hope of the ultimate victory of our revolution if it were to remain alone…” “We shall achieve final victory only when we succeed at last in conclusively smashing international imperialism …. But we shall achieve victory only together with all the workers of other countries, of the whole world.”
The extension of the revolution was no vain wish. In January 1918, revolution broke out in Finland. In November 1918, Germany became covered in workers’ councils. In March 1919, a Republic of Councils was proclaimed in Hungary. In 1919 and 1920, Italy was swept by a strike wave in which workers’ councils also took shape.
We are often told that we are utopian, because with capitalism being worldwide, there would need to be an international revolution. But as it happens, revolutions are contagious by nature. When the exploited rise up in one country, they become an example for the exploited all across the world.
Between 1917 and 1920, a revolutionary wave swept over all of Europe. The overthrow of the capitalist order had never been so close!
In the heat of events, and despite the enormous tasks confronting them in Russia, the Bolsheviks helped revolutionaries everywhere with building parties capable of leading the masses to victory. They directed all their energy toward building an International.
The banner of the Communist International, founded in Moscow in March 1919, attracted the most conscious elements of the workers’ movement and of the young generations of the whole world. From the Americas to Asia, as far as the colonies of the imperialist powers, the oppressed people of the entire world recognized themselves in the soviet power, revolted, or went on strike. This was how the communist parties came into being in almost every country, in France, India, China, Iran, Algeria, the United States.
But the revolutionary wave was defeated in country after country. There was not enough time to build revolutionary parties capable of playing the role that the Bolshevik Party had played in Russia. And, with the active complicity of the old parties that called themselves socialist, the workers were put down.
The defeat of this first revolutionary wave would be decisive. And it provoked a retreat of the revolution in Russia itself. The isolation of the revolution in a backward country ruined by years of war promoted the development of a bureaucracy that eventually took power and imposed an iron dictatorship over the working class under Stalin.
And so, if Stalin was, to borrow an expression from Trotsky, one of the greatest criminals in history, the responsibility does not fall on the Bolsheviks but on the Social-Democratic parties that fought and stopped the postwar revolutionary wave. The battle begun in 1917 in Russia was lost in Berlin, Budapest, Helsinki … just as much as in Moscow.
The degeneration of the Russian Revolution is enough for certain people to generalize and explain that, “since it didn’t work then, it will never work.” But we cannot deduce the impossibility and definitive failure of communism in general from this single experience in a backward country.
Incidentally, no one makes this kind of generalization when talking about capitalism. Nevertheless, we can still evaluate this economy that has existed for over two centuries, which has developed at the level of the planet and has known all sorts of regimes, from Naziism to the most liberal democracy.
Can one say for certain that it is a success? Is it a success in Africa? In India? And what about what is taking place today in the rich countries like the United States and France: millions of unemployed workers, unending economic crises, prisons filled to the bursting point, a polluted environment saturated with the poisons that industry has produced, never-ending violence—is this a success?
And so, let us not be misled by anti-communist shortcuts. And let us look at what was accomplished in Russia.
By taking on leadership of the revolution, the worker and peasant proletariat swept away the feudal clutter from the Middle Ages much more resolutely than the English and French Revolutions had done. Must we recall that in Great Britain, the Prime Minister is still named by the queen while kneeling before her? Parliamentary sessions still open with wigged and powdered deputies who seem to have walked right out of the Middle Ages!
And when we look at what is happening in India, with the persistence of castes, and in many African and Middle Eastern countries, with ethnic nationalism, the mutilation of women, forced marriage, one must conclude that yes, the Russian Revolution succeeded in bringing millions of women and men out of an age of barbarism.
The revolution certainly did not lead to a socialist society—and once again, this was impossible within a single country—but it allowed for the construction of a collectivized and planned economy which, despite the dictatorship, corruption, and blind management of the bureaucracy, had no need for shame compared to the capitalist economy.
Between 1926 and 1938, during a period when the capitalist world was hit by the great crisis of 1929, the Soviet economy grew more strongly than any capitalist country.
In 1936, all while denouncing Stalin’s policies and crimes and at the same time that his companions in struggle were being arrested and shot in the USSR, Trotsky paid tribute to what he called the achievements of the Russian Revolution:
“Gigantic achievement in industry, enormously promising beginnings in agriculture, an extraordinary growth of the old industrial cities and a building of new ones, a rapid increase of the numbers of workers, a rise in cultural level and cultural demands—such are the indubitable results of the October Revolution, in which the prophets of the old world tried to see the grave of human civilization.
With the bourgeois economists we have no longer anything to quarrel over. Socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital, but in an industrial arena comprising a sixth part of the earth’s surface—not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity.
Even if the Soviet Union, as a result of internal difficulties, external blows and the mistakes of leadership, were to collapse—which we firmly hope will not happen—there would remain as a promise of the future this indestructible fact, that thanks solely to a proletarian revolution, a backward country has achieved in less than 10 years successes unprecedented in history.”
And neither Stalinist barbarity nor the later disappearance of the Soviet Union can erase this.
History is that of class struggles, as Marx said, and we are convinced that new revolutionary situations will arise. No one can know how long it will be until a new workers’ revolution. But we do know that a party is indispensable.
Over the one hundred and eighty years or so of its existence, the working class has launched itself into battle tens, if not hundreds, of times. What is missing has not been its willingness to fight and the spirit of sacrifice. It has lacked a party that would allow it to take the leadership of the struggle and to push it through to the taking of power.
As deep as were the Mexican Revolution of 1911, the Chinese Revolution of 1949, and the Cuban Revolution of 1959, and as radical as were the anti-colonial revolutions, they did not open the same perspectives as did the Russian Revolution. This is because all revolutionary classes are not equal.
Other social categories besides the proletariat can be the lever of the revolution—the peasantry, and the petty-bourgeoisie in certain countries. In Portugal, the Carnation Revolution that overthrew the dictatorship in 1974 showed that a fraction of the army is certainly able to bring about a revolt.
But the working class constitutes the only social class that can carry it through to the end, that is, to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and private property. The reason for this, as Marx said, is that the working class has nothing to lose but its chains.
As opposed to the peasants and the petty-bourgeoisie, the working class is not held back by any property, and it gets no profit from the existing social order. While the small peasant hopes to become master of the land in order to cultivate it for their own profit, the proletarians wish to become masters of themselves, and they fight to liberate themselves from exploitation, which can only be a collective action.
The members of the working class form an indivisible whole. The labor of each one only has meaning when it is placed in common, organized, and collectively planned. In order to free themselves, the workers must overthrow capitalist property and abolish the exploitation of humans by other humans.
This social liberation has always been the most powerful engine of revolutions. After Trotsky observed this in the Revolution of 1905, he explained:
“The point at issue this time was not the freedom of the press, nor the arbitrary rule of uniformed thugs, nor even universal suffrage. The workingman was demanding a guarantee that his muscles, his nerves, his brain should be safeguarded. He had decided to win back for himself a part of his own life. He could not wait any longer—and he did not want to. In the events of the revolution he had sensed his own strength for the first time, and through the same events he had first come to glimpse a different, higher form of life.”
It was this discovery that gave such vitality to the Russian Revolution. It was the enthusiasm and self-sacrifice that it called forth that allowed the young government to win the civil war, and it was still this vitality that nourished the generations that followed, including under Stalin when the issue at hand was to develop industry.
With the Russian Revolution, the working class showed that it represented a unique and irreplaceable revolutionary force. This is not only because it is capable of revolt, but above all because it is capable of taking power and holding onto it in order to build a truly collective society, a society without social classes, without exploitation, and without borders.
We cannot start revolutions. No revolutionary has ever done so. Revolutions are social phenomena that appear suddenly and surprise everyone, including the revolutionaries. But we carry out our activity so that the working class can gain the consciousness that the task of transforming society falls to it. And that it is capable of doing so.
This was Lenin’s conviction. It is why he built a party that was entirely devoted to the workers and to their fights. And it is why this party had irremediably tied its fate to the working class that it led to power.
It is such a party that we want to build.
There is nothing easy about this. And it is particularly difficult when the workers’ movement is in retreat. There is impatience in the ranks of those who wish to change the world, as well as doubts and withdrawal. But one does not choose the conditions and the context in which one acts, and one must tackle the job at hand.
In a non-revolutionary period like our own, this party can only be against the current and can only rally around it a minority fraction of the working class. This has always been the case. It was the case in the time of Marx and Engels. And it was the case for the Bolshevik Party.
When the first Marxists came together in Russia, they had to have strong hearts and solid reasoning, since they defended the perspective of revolution in a state where czarism seemed unshakeable. They defended the perspectives of worldwide proletarian revolution in a country where 80% of the population was made up of peasants.
And then the 1905 Revolution broke out, which was an important step forward in the construction of their party. But after the enthusiasm of the revolutionary upsurge, there was defeat and a step backwards. Certain militants gave up. Some of them even theorized that it would be impossible for the Russian working class to take the leadership of the revolution. And many others dropped out in 1914, when the war drove away any hope for revolution in the short term.
But there were women and men like Lenin who held fast to their convictions and maintained their vibrant perspective. They were there at the decisive moment. And the future of the revolution depended on them. It is their courage and their tenacity that should inspire us.
Building revolutionary parties in every country and the International that we lack is a task that may appear out of reach today. But history has had its accelerating jolts and changes in people’s state of mind.
It is in these periods that these parties will be built. This is because it is through fights, strikes, and clashes with the bourgeoisie and its state apparatus that thousands and tens of thousands of workers will come forth, regaining confidence in themselves and in their class. And it is they who then must be gathered into a true party worthy of the name. They are the ones who will make the minority ideas that we defend today the weapons of their emancipation.
And so, there must be women and men who raise the banner high. There must be women, men, and young people who are not resigned to exploitation, inequalities, and the barbarity of capitalism and who do not lose their morale even when the times are not yet ready for revolt.
Whatever their progression, they must know how to draw the lessons of the past and to revive the revolutionary traditions of the workers’ movement, with class consciousness. And they must take on the task of spreading them, of winning over new generations.
Today some people talk about revolution as though it means anything—eating organic food or writing graffiti on a bank wall—but this is not what revolution means to us.
Being a revolutionary communist means being convinced that it falls on the working class to transform society and that it is capable of doing so. There must be militants who keep this conviction deeply ingrained within them and are guided by this in all their actions.
Being a revolutionary does not mean waiting for the big day with one’s arms crossed. Being a revolutionary communist means carrying out activity in the working class every day. It means intervening in its fights, from the smallest to the most gigantic, so that the workers can discover their collective capacities. But it also requires defending these ideas and perspectives in the working class when nothing is going on. It means making one’s contribution towards the construction of the party each day.
Lenin was a revolutionary in October 1917, but he was also one when he was in exile in Switzerland in 1914, 1915 … because he never stopped spreading his ideas and bringing women and men around them.
Just as we don’t know how to predict earthquakes, we don’t know how to foresee when and where the next revolutionary shock will come from. Who will set it off? The miners of Turkey, or of South Africa? The women workers of Bangladesh, Korea, Tunisia, Spain, Greece, or France? The future will tell.
But what is certain is that there will be one. Daily oppression and exploitation cause anger and revolt to accumulate. Certain people put up with the blows, while others try to fight back, up until a true social explosion takes place. Until millions of women and men who had let themselves be kicked around by events decide to submit no longer and set themselves to taking part in political life.
Like the Russian workers, soldiers, and peasants of 1917, they will rise up, and like them, they will learn that even though when all alone, we can do nothing, together, we can do everything!
And comrades, it is for this that we are preparing ourselves and for which we are doing all we can so that there can be a revolutionary party equal to the events to come.