— Dipankar Bhattacharya
(Based on talks on the Relevance of the November Revolution given in a couple of recent meetings in Dhaka and JNU)
It has been exactly one hundred years since the world witnessed the first socialist revolution under the leadership of Lenin and his comrades. As history would have it, the most direct and tangible outcome of that revolution which we had known in the name of the USSR, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, has ceased to exist. For some, the collapse and disappearance of the Soviet Union is the biggest proof of the failure and irrelevance of the November Revolution. It was destined to fail, doomed to collapse, they tell us.
Well, however much these people may like to cry themselves hoarse, the Red October was no stillborn revolution. The Soviet Union went on to last for a full seventy years and change the course of world history for large parts of the twentieth century.
Before November 1917, the world had known the idea of socialism as an intermediate step towards a communist future. The post-revolutionary Russia demonstrated what socialism could look like and what it could achieve in terms of rapid economic development and distributive justice even in a backward country. In terms of virtually every social indicator of development backward Russia of early 20th century started competing with the best in the world in a matter of just a few decades. From art and literature, theatre and films to sports and education, the Soviet Union unleashed the great potential of human development almost in every sphere. Education, employment, healthcare, housing, paid holidays – the entire range of rights became everyday reality for a hitherto deprived and disempowered people.
Quite understandably, the socialist transformation of Russia became the greatest ambassador for the communist movement in the early 20th century. Across the world, it also lent huge inspiration to anti-colonial national liberation struggles. The history of our own freedom movement has been witness to the profound inspiration and impact of the November Revolution over successive generations of freedom fighters from the heroes of the Gadar movement, Ashfaqullah Khan to Bhagat Singh and his comrades and their successors. The role of the Soviet Union and its Red Army as the bulwark of the victory over fascism in World War II can perhaps never be exaggerated, especially today when we have Trump-like despots raising their heads in different parts of the world.
Of course, the collapse of the Soviet Union too has left a lot of lessons and challenges and future socialist revolutions will surely have to take them into account. The socialist state led by the communist party was meant to be an apparatus in the hands of the victorious working class to build socialism and ensure socialist democracy for the working people. But we know how the state eventually became a bureaucratic and repressive apparatus and the Party came to be identified more with the state than with the people. The urge to fulfil the needs and aspirations of the working people, which had propelled the fledgling post-revolutionary state to ensure the welfare of the broadest majority of the people defying all the difficulties of two successive world wars, came to be overshadowed by an ever-growing military budget as the USSR turned into a superpower and got embroiled in an unsustainable arms race with the US-led NATO.
But the fact that the Soviet Union eventually collapsed under its own weight does in no way undermine the world historic significance of the November Revolution. We must remember that when Lenin and his comrades entrusted themselves with the programme of accomplishing a revolution in Russia they had little historical reference to follow or learn from. The French Revolution of 1789 had issued the clarion call of liberty, equality and fraternity, but there was no successful example of a society founded on these lofty principles. Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848 as commissioned by the fledgling group of early communist revolutionaries but what followed was no revolution but a series of counter-revolutions in Europe. It was again France that came closest to the accomplishment of a socialist revolution when the worker fighters of Paris wrested power in the city and began putting in place the first framework of socialist governance. But lacking proper organisation and clarity of vision, the heroic communards of Paris could not hold on to power for long. But they left behind a rich legacy of profound lessons about the conquering of state power and building of a socialist state and, of course, the ever inspiring anthem of the international communist movement.
This was an exciting period of development for the international working class movement. The publication of Capital in 1867 had blazed a new trail of intellectual inquiry, initiating a process of in-depth study and analysis of the political economy and equipping the working class with a revolutionary grasp of the capitalist order. The dawning of the realisation that capitalism itself was a product of social change and was certainly not an eternal or natural social order inspired the working class with enormous historical confidence in resisting capitalism and fighting for a new socialist society. The formation of the International Working Men’s Association in London in 1864 provided an excellent platform not only to encourage working class struggles across sectors and countries and foster international working class solidarity but also to clarify and develop ideas of conscious and collective political action of the working class. The revolutionary consciousness and experience of the working class and the communist movement grew through a constant contention of ideas and approaches – between anarchism and mass political assertion of the working class, and also between reformism aimed at gradual incremental improvement and revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist order.
It was against this backdrop that the communist movement sprang to life in Russia. It was a journey that defied every mechanical notion of Marxist theory and practice. Quite early on, Lenin came up with his detailed study of the development of capitalism in Russia even as he paid adequate attention to the survivals of serfdom that retarded this development. From this early study of capitalist development to his path-breaking analysis of imperialism written during the final phase of revolution, the study of the economy and class relations in the Russian society was always central to Lenin’s revolutionary project. This sharp focus on theory went hand in hand with meticulous planning and emphasis on organisation-building and agitational mobilisation and political education of the broad masses.
The Leninist mode of building a communist party and accomplishing revolution is often misinterpreted as an elitist intellectualist enterprise where a small group of leaders run the whole show in the name of the common people. If we read the history of the Russian revolution and Lenin’s polemical writings on the development of the Bolshevik Party, we can easily see that such an interpretation is a real travesty of facts. Lenin’s insistence on professional revolutionaries was in contrast to amateurishness, against the amateurish lack of consistency and discipline that would make revolutionaries vulnerable to the tsarist network of surveillance and repression. And these professional revolutionaries emerged as much from the ranks of workers as from among the intelligentsia.
Lenin was all for everyday economic struggles but under no circumstances would he confine the people to economic struggles alone or insist on economic struggles as a mandatory prelude to political action. There is no stage theory in the trajectory of class struggle, nor is there any watertight compartmentalisation between the economic and the political. In fact, the elitist conception of politics treats the masses as being unfit for political struggles, keeping them bogged down in exclusively economic struggles away from the political arena. By ensuring direct participation of the masses in political action, communists freed politics from that aristocratic stranglehold. This rejection of economism is crucial for all communist practitioners of class struggle. In China, we would see that Mao too asked his comrades to keep ‘politics in command’. Class struggle being the process through which the working class asserts its political role in the society, eventually emerging as the leading or ruling class in socialism, there can be no limiting the attention or intervention of the working class to any limited or specified arena. Injustice in any and every sphere of society can serve as the trigger or spark for revolutionary politics.
All through the build-up and trajectory of the November Revolution we can see this creative and dynamic application of Marxism. While the attempted revolution of 1905 failed and the tsarist autocracy unleashed severe repression to crush the revolutionary upswing, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party which eventually came to be known as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union managed to overcome the setback and expand its organisational base and political influence. The involvement of Russia in World War I created massive disillusionment among civilians and soldiers and sailors alike and intensified mass resentment against the tsarist autocracy. Bread, land and peace became powerful felt needs of the overwhelming majority of the people and the revolution achieved its first big success in February (March) 1917 leading to the emergence of a provisional government replacing the tsarist autocracy.
It was remarkable that instead of stopping at the ouster of the tsarist rule, the revolution went on right up to the point of establishing a socialist republic. While Lenin and his comrades acted with clinical precision, the victory of the November Revolution was scripted not through any superior military strategy but primarily through the creation of the ideological-political hegemony of socialism. And this called for a final battle against pedantic mechanical readings of Marxism and various shades of opportunist and reformist vacillation. The idea that socialism could arise only on the basis of the maturation of capitalism was still quite powerful and the Russian working class was considered not numerically and organisationally strong enough to proceed towards socialism. In the imagery used by Plekhanov, Russia simply did not have sufficient proletarian yeast to mix with the peasant dough to make a proper socialist cake! But Lenin and his comrades successfully turned the imperialist war into a revolutionary war of the people, built a broad-based popular alliance under the leadership of the working class that tapped the revolutionary potential of the peasantry and other sections of the people and the imperialist chain was snapped at its weakest link.
Consolidation of the victory of the revolution proved no less challenging. Russia needed peace and Bolsheviks accepted even a harsh peace treaty like Brest-Litovsk to secure immediate peace. The war-ravaged country needed urgent economic stability and rapid development and revolutionary Russia did not mind giving some space to private capital under the New Economic Policy to achieve this objective. While both these compromises were short-lived the fledgling socialist country could not possibly survive without this much-needed breather. While fully utilising the opportunity to accomplish revolution in a single country, it was obvious that socialism in Russia could not survive for long if it remained encircled by a hostile capitalist environment. The attempts at building and consolidating socialism within Russia therefore went hand in hand with attempts to strengthen the international communist movement, especially in Europe. It is another matter that revolutionary attempts in Italy and Germany did not succeed and the countries instead witnessed the rise of fascism and Nazism and it took another world war to defeat this fascist menace.
Today once again as we confront the fascist right in the midst of a global economic crisis, we surely need to invoke the spirit of the November Revolution in all its glory. With its supreme energy and dynamism, resilience and power, the November Revolution remains the best treasure house for communists the world over in the battle against capitalist barbarism.