November Revolution Centenary: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

A silent revolution in the realm of philosophy and politics took place in 1845 when the young Karl Heinrich Marx concluded his Thesis on Feuerbach with the assertion “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

The most advanced class, the modern proletariat, set the ball rolling in real life from Paris. The first proletarian state came up there in 1871. That was, of course, a violent revolution which went down in blood in a little over two months. But, as Marx commented, “a new point of departure of worldwide importance has been gained.”

From that point, the next series of offensives were made in Russia – a country with very acute social, political, national and other contradictions and a rich revolutionary heritage — in quick succession: the ‘failed’ revolution of 1905, the February Revolution in 1917, and finally the November Revolution (NR) in the same year. Between them, the first acted as a dress rehearsal that gave the historical actors an opportunity to soberly assess their flaws and fine points; the second, by sweeping away the Czar, cleared the ground for an open, direct and decisive battle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat for control over state power; the third saw the proletariat in league with peasants and soldiers seizing power and founding the Soviet Socialist Republic.

Uninterrupted Revolution

Way back in 1905, Lenin had written:

“…from the democratic revolution we shall at once, and just in accordance with the measure of our strength, the strength of the class-conscious and organised proletariat, begin to pass to the socialist revolution. We stand for uninterrupted revolution. We shall not stop halfway… We shall put every effort into assisting the entire peasantry to carry out the democratic revolution in order thereby to make it easier for us, the party of the proletariat, to pass on, as quickly as possible, to the new and higher task – the socialist revolution.” (The Attitude of Social Democracy towards the Peasant Movement; emphasis added)

Here is a brilliant and creative elaboration of Marx’s concept of “revolution in permanence” in the Russian context – creative in the sense that, in a “peasant country” like Russia, the vital role of the peasant movement and the responsibility of the revolutionary proletariat to promote that is categorically recognised and emphasised here, which is not to be found in Trotsky’s theory of ‘permanent revolution’.

For Lenin, the February and November revolutions were a case of two-in-one, so to say. This is what he wrote in 1921 about the content or political nature of the Russian revolution:

“The direct and immediate object of the revolution in Russia was a bourgeois-democratic one, namely, 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.…

“We have consummated the bourgeois-democratic revolution as nobody had done before. We are advancing towards the socialist revolution consciously, firmly and unswervingly, knowing that it is not separated from the bourgeois-democratic revolution by a Chinese Wall … 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.”

Remarkably enough, there is no trace of cocksureness or historical determinism in Lenin’s words. The leader of the Russian proletariat accepts the challenge and vows to fight and see rather than wait and see.

Revolutionary Dialectics of Marxism

Astounding though the rapid success of NR was, it came up against opposition from faint-hearted petty bourgeois reformists claiming to be Marxists. The argument ran like this. Marxism holds that socialism can be built only on the edifice of highly developed productive forces in advanced capitalist countries and only by the joint efforts of the proletarians in such countries. But the Bolsheviks rushed towards socialist revolution knowing full well that Russia lacked the material basis required for building socialism and also that the fledgling socialist state would have to combat the predatory world bourgeoisie all alone, without any support from advanced European nations. The Bolsheviks, therefore, were guilty of a double fault: trying to build socialism in a single country, and a backward country at that.

“They all call themselves Marxists”– replied Lenin – “but their conception of Marxism is impossibly pedantic. They have completely failed to understand what is decisive in Marxism, namely, its revolutionary dialectics. … they are complete strangers to the idea that while the development of world history as a whole follows general laws it is by no means precluded, but, on the contrary, presumed, that certain periods of development may display peculiarities in either the form or the sequence of the development.” [Our Revolution (1923)]

The second half of the second decade of the 20th century was indeed one of those exceptional periods. The general possibility of the global chain of imperialism snapping at its weakest link, noted by Lenin in Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism (written in 1916 and published in April 1917) became an immediate option – nay, an urgent task – in Russia in the context of World War I, thanks to a set of special circumstances or advantages in that country.[1] And the Bolsheviks, sweeping aside the vacillations of Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries, boldly led the revolutionary proletariat to fulfil that task and establish its class rule. The revolution was victorious.

Note : 1. For one, imperialist powers, engaged in the First World War, were not in a position to join forces to suppress the Russian revolution. Also the Russian bourgeoisie was rather flabby compared to their west European counterparts while the landlord class was utterly demoralised by peasant rebellions.

The NR, thus, entailed both a reordering in the theoretically expected sequence of development (a capitalistically backward country crossing the threshold of capitalism ahead of more advanced ones) and a change in the ‘normal’ course or form of development (a bourgeois democratic revolution being led not by the bourgeoisie as in the past but by the proletariat allied with the toiling peasantry and passing uninterruptedly into socialist revolution). To the objection that Russia lacked the required level of capitalist development or civilisation, Lenin’s reply was, “You say that civilization is necessary for the building of socialism. Very good. But why could we not first create such prerequisites of civilization in our country by the expulsion of the landowners and the Russian capitalists, and then start moving toward socialism? Where, in what books, have you read that such variations of the customary historical sequence of events are impermissible or impossible?” (Our Revolution (1923))

As for the objection about ‘socialism in one country’, Lenin had this to say, “This first victory is not yet the final victory… 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.” (Fourth Anniversary of the October Revolution (1921))

But this did not mean: we have done our job, now let others do theirs. As Lenin wrote soon after NR, the victorious revolution must do “the utmost possible in one country for the development, support and awakening of the revolutions in all countries.” The proletarian revolution And the Renegade Kautsky (1918)

To recognise the inevitability of many such modifications in the general course of social evolution and revolution, and to develop the party’s strategic and tactical perspectives accordingly – here is where revolutionary Marxism differs substantially from dogmatic falsification of Marxism. Towards the end of the article Our Revolution Lenin wrote – and once again he would prove prophetic – “… the subsequent revolutions in Oriental countries, which possess much vaster populations in a much vaster diversity of social conditions, will undoubtedly display even greater distinctions than the Russian Revolution.”

Beyond Parliamentarism: “All Power to the Soviets”!

In the wake of the February Revolution, the Czarist government was replaced by a Provisional Government (PG) of Duma members, mostly members of the Cadet (Constitutional-Democratic) Party, headed by Prince G. Lovov, a wealthy landowner. Simultaneously, Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies were set up in Petrograd and other cities. Thus emerged the peculiar situation of dual power—the bourgeois PG contending for political hegemony with the Soviet power representing all toilers. A “Contact Commission” was also set up, through which the Soviets were to advise the PG. Mensheviks in the Soviets, consistent with their pedantic understanding that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is to vest power in the bourgeoisie and that the proletariat should start the socialist revolution at a later stage, adopted a conciliatory attitude to the PG. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, organised and led the masses in carrying the revolution forward to the socialist stage and in expanding the organs of people’s power. For example, at the instance of the Petrograd Soviet, a workers’ militia and people’s courts were formed and elected soldiers’ committees created in every army unit to exercise control over commanding officers.

Lenin, who had long been guiding the party as a political emigre, returned to Russia in April. On his proposal, Bolsheviks issued an appeal for peaceful transfer of power: “No Support to the PG! All Power to the Soviets!” At the time, Bolsheviks (literally meaning The Majority!) were a minority, in many cases a small minority, in the Soviets. Workers were strongly influenced by Mensheviks and peasants by Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) who claimed to stand for equitable redistribution of all land. Outside the Soviets also, for a few months after the February Revolution, the masses innocently pinned their hopes on the PG – so much so that initially they sometimes even refused to listen to Bolshevik speakers in mass meetings because the latter were known to be opposed to the PG and the Mensheviks and SRs. But the Bolsheviks persisted in the exposure campaign and the government too began to expose itself through inaction and anti-people action regarding burning problems of the day. By June, massive demonstrations with the Bolshevik slogan began to be taken out. In July, one such rally in Petrograd was fired upon by troops loyal to the PG. An openly counter-revolutionary bourgeois dictatorship was now set up under the premiership of the Menshevik leader Kerensky. A witch-hunt for Bolsheviks began, and Lenin had to go underground again.

The people’s anger against the PG was rising by the day, and when the news spread that it was contemplating the surrender of Petrograd to the German troops (with which Russia was then at war) to crush the revolution, the Bolsheviks swung into action.

The Art of Insurrection

Lenin, then in hiding inside Russia, worked out a tentative plan for insurrection in a letter to the Bolshevik Central Committee dated 14 (27) September, later published under the title Marxism and Insurrection. He rejected the Menshevik plan of a Democratic Conference to be followed by a Pre-Parliament to settle the question of power, and insisted on “concentrating our entire group in the factories and barracks [so that] we shall be able to determine the right moment to start the insurrection.”

That moment arrived on 24 October (6 November) and Lenin sensed it before anyone else. A Congress of Soviets was scheduled to open the next day, i.e., 7 November, for considering the question of seizure of power. But the non-Bolshevik delegates to the Congress were likely to oppose instant action and some Bolshevik leaders too were hesitating. So Lenin sent an urgent message from its secret shelter in Petrograd to the Bolsheviks CCMs assembled at the Smolny Institute, Petrograd. The message read, in part,

“everything now hangs by a thread … we are confronted by problems which are not to be solved by conferences or congresses (even congresses of Soviets) but exclusively by the masses, by the struggle of the armed people.

… All districts, all regiments, all forces must be mobilised at once and they must immediately send their delegations to the Military Revolutionary Committee and to the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks with the insistent demand that under no circumstances should power be left in the hands of Kerensky and Co. until the 25th—the matter must be settled without fail this very evening, or this very night. …

It would be a disaster, or a sheer formality, to await the wavering vote of October 25. The people have the right and are in duty bound to decide such questions not by a vote, but by force; in critical moments of revolution, the people have the right and are in duty bound to give directions to their representatives, even their best representatives, and not to wait for them. …

“The government is tottering. It must be given the deathblow at all costs.

To delay action is fatal….”

The brief message is highly instructive on many counts. Like in his other writings and speeches in the period of revolutionary upsurge preceding NR, Lenin comes out here as a staunch actionist repeatedly insisting on “decisions, and not talk… action, and not resolution-writing”. Dead against procedural formalism or parliamentary moralism, he places the people above their elected representatives and asks his comrades to fan out among the politically active masses and rouse them into instantaneous action, before their deputies meet in the morning to discuss, debate and vote on the issue. With this authoritative insistence, the ardent student of Marx was actually urging his comrades not to repeat the mistakes of the Communards of Paris – the mistakes flowing from, in Marx’s words, “their ‘good nature'” and “a too ‘honourable’ scrupulosity”.[2] He knew that this was the only way to preempt the Kerensky Government’s final counterrevolutionary blows and to neutralise next day’s “wavering vote”.

Note : 2. In a letter to Ludwig Kugelman Marx wrote on 12 April 1871, “What flexibility, what historical initiative, what a capacity for sacrifice in these Parisians! … If they are defeated only their “good nature” will be to blame. They ought to have marched at once on Versailles after the withdrawal first of Vinoy and then of the reactionary sections of the Paris National Guard. They missed their opportunity because of moral scruples. They did not want to start a civil war, as if that mischievous dwarf Thiers had not already started the civil war…. Second mistake: The Central Committee surrendered its power too soon, to make way for the Commune. Again from a too “honourable” scrupolisity!”

Soon after sending the message, the well-trained professional revolutionary took the necessary risk to venture out in disguise and arrive at the Smolny, the Bolshevik headquarter for directing the insurrection. Action started from midnight. By the next morning, most of the strategically important parts of the capital were in the hands of the insurgent workers, soldiers and sailors. In the evening (October 25) the Winter Palace was stormed; simultaneously the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets opened in the Smolny Institute. The Winter Palace was seized and members of the bourgeois government arrested. The Soviet Congress proclaimed fait accompli: the transfer of state power to the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies. It also elected the Council of People’s Commissars headed by Lenin. The very next day the historic Decree on Peace (calling for immediate cessation of war) and Decree on Land (confiscation of all land held by landlords, churches etc. and its redistribution among the toiling peasantry) were adopted. A host of similar steps followed. The Soviet Government was in place.

The uprising was crowned with success because, firstly, the ground was prepared by more than a decade of painstaking political work among the masses and secondly because the three major conditions for successful insurrection outlined by Lenin in September on the basis of Marx’s teachings (see box) were fulfilled (e.g., it relied “not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class”).

Is it not remarkable how the entire episode, and the whole thought process of Lenin, fly into the face of allegations that the November Revolution was a conspiratorial coup and that Lenin’s conception of revolution and revolutionary party was thoroughly elitist!

The Spirit of November

Hundred years on, we find ourselves in a very different milieu. The most tangible direct result of NR – the Soviet Union – does not exist; the scars and deep wounds left by its collapse do. Then why on earth should we celebrate the centenary of a trial that ultimately failed?

Well we should, because NR entailed the most radical rupture with evils of the past and the simultaneous initiation of an international Long March to communism, the future of humankind. As the toiling masses, the ultimate source of all material and cultural wealth, threw off the yokes of oppression and exploitation, their limitless creative faculties were unfettered and in a very short period of time they negotiated a considerable distance in that direction. Was that not a marvelous moment ever to be cherished?

Because NR demonstrated, for the first time and for the whole world to behold, the practicability of the socialist project and its enormous emancipatory and constructive prowess. Who can forget how the infant Soviet State emerged victorious in the civil war accompanied by famine and foreign aggression and then embarked on a path of spectacular all-round progress and achievements ranging from, say, hoisting the red flag atop the Reichstag in May 1945 to sending the first human being to outer space in April 1961? Or that NR provided a great impetus to the national liberation movements and communist movements all over the world, thereby promoting left and progressive currents in indirect but substantial ways?

From times immemorial, literally hundreds of millions of the bravest women and men in Russia and elsewhere – the real Salt of the Earth – laid down their precious lives fighting for freedom, justice and happiness; after November their dreams started coming true. But in the absence of any prior experience and in the face of enormous internal difficulties and external hostilities, the communist party committed major mistakes. A strong state, being the organ of dictatorship of the proletariat, was needed and built up, but only at the cost of serious damage to inner-party democracy and socialist democracy. After the death of Stalin, in the name of rectifying the mistakes, the basics of Marxism-Leninism were thrown overboard. By this time there were saner voices around – that of Mao Zedong for example – but these fell on deaf ears. In the decades that followed, other kinds of most serious distortions crept in, such as a delirious urge to emerge as the other superpower vying with the US for world hegemony, which led to unsustainable diversion of material and human resources from the real productive sectors to the military sector and largely led to stagnation and decline in the economy. The drift and the rot continued, and finally the superpower caved in under its own weight.

This tragic turn of events shows that victory in revolution and initial success in building socialism is no guarantee against major deviations or even restoration of capitalism; what is most crucial for that is the continuing development of and firm adherence to principles of Marxism-Leninism as a guide to action on the basis of concrete analysis of concrete conditions. Indeed there were extremely serious lapses in this regard, in the ideological arena. But is it not true that this negative experience has also served to complement the experience of great achievements and has placed the world proletariat in a better position to handle the contradictions of building socialism when the next opportunity presents itself?

Yes, that is the way the international battle unfolds. Did not Lenin make it clear, at the very outset, that “only by a series of attempts – each of which, taken by itself, will be one-sided and suffer from certain inconsistencies – will compete socialism be created by the revolutionary co-operation of the proletarians of all countries“?

However damaging the setback to socialism in its country of origin may have been, we the progenies of November – the left forces in different countries – are struggling to move ahead in our own ways, confident that setbacks notwithstanding, socialism will ultimately triumph over capitalism. The centenary of NR should be a good occasion for us once again to study, appreciate and learn from the theoretical soundness, political dynamism, tactical flexibility, courage of conviction and revolutionary mass line of Bolsheviks, which made November possible and at the same time, call out to the masses to prepare for many more Novembers.

Among the various reasons that led to the eventual collapse of the USSR, two key reasons were the drying up of economic dynamism and steady erosion and ossification of socialist democracy. Following the disappearance of the USSR and the consequent and concurrent disintegration of the entire Soviet bloc, the US obviously remained the only superpower in the world. The US also sought to claim the moral high ground as though the collapse of the Soviet Union had automatically established the superiority of the US in terms of both economic dynamism and popular legitimacy. We soon saw the US seize the moment and launch an aggressive politico-military campaign imposing neo-liberal policies and exporting ‘democracy’ by installing puppet/client regimes in a whole series of countries. But recent years have shown that this permanent global war campaign has also begun to boomerang on the US, derailing its once booming economy and increasingly denuding its own internal democracy. We have seen powerful popular struggles grow in the US in the form of inspiring campaigns like ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’. While this popular democratic assertion and anti-capitalist quest of the American people is seeking a powerful political expression and outlet (a self-avowed socialist came so close to becoming the Presidential candidate of the Democrats, something rather unthinkable till recently), the victory of Trump in the recent Presidential elections – powered by a dangerous cocktail of racism and Islamophobia as well as xenophobia and misogyny and facilitated by a situation of escalating economic crisis has once again underlined the urgent need to look beyond capitalism for a consistent egalitarian democracy.

When the crisis of bourgeois democracies catapults the likes of Trump, Erdogan and Modi to the highest political offices in their respective countries, we certainly need the spirit and light of November to find our way forward through this critical juncture of history.

Long Live the Spirit of November!

Hold High the Banner of Marxism-Leninism!

BOX: 1

“To be successful, insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class. That is the first point. Insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary upsurge of the people. That is the second point. Insurrection must rely upon that turning-point in the history of the growing revolution when the activity of the advanced ranks of the people is at its height, and when the vacillations in the ranks of the enemy and in the ranks of the weak, half-hearted and irresolute friends of the revolution are strongest. That is the third point. And these three conditions for raising the question of insurrection distinguish Marxism from Blanquism.

Once these conditions exist, however, to refuse to treat insurrection as an art is a betrayal of Marxism and a betrayal of the revolution.”

– Lenin, Marxism and Insurrection

BOX: 2

“… Socialist society covers a very long historical period. Classes and class struggle continue to exist in this society, and the struggle still goes on between the road of socialism and the road of capitalism. The socialist revolution on the economic front… is insufficient in itself and cannot be consolidated. There must also be a thorough socialist revolution on the political and ideological fronts. Here a fairly long period of time is needed to decide “who will win” in the struggle between socialism and capitalism. Several decades won’t do it; success requires anywhere from one to several centuries.”

– Mao Zedong in course of International Great Debate, 1964