Recalling the Russian Revolution

The aim of this condensed article is not to invite readers to join me in remembering the late Soviet Union. Rather, the aim is to recall the thunderous birth, a hundred years ago, of a state which put workers’ power and socialism on the agenda of global political contestation, a mighty revolutionary event which sharply changed the course of world history. But I am recalling that event not nostalgically. I am recalling the birth of the Soviet state for the enduring lessons which its 74-year history offered to humankind, lessons that are continually been renewed and expanded especially for those segments of the young generations aiming at, rather than dreaming of, transforming the world into a more human, humane, egalitarian, democratic and, hence, safer and happier place for all its inhabitants.

On November 7, 1917, the largest and the most autocratic and backward state in Europe, the Tsarist state of the Russian Empire, ceased to exist. Its definitive overthrow and abolition were proclaimed in the capital, Petrograd, after two days of street fighting in which workers, peasants, students, soldiers and sailors were involved. The proclamation was issued simultaneously by two centres: the revolutionary high command and the Petrograd Soviet (Delegates’ Assembly) of Workers, Peasants and Soldiers.

The revolutionary high command was the Central Committee of the Bolshevik (majority) faction of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Party headed by Vladimir Illych Ulyanov, a 47-year old professional revolutionary, a genius in organization, tactics and persuasion known to the world as Lenin. The Petrograd Soviet was headed by a man born as Lev Bronstein – but known to the world as Leon Trotsky: a 38-year old romantic and oratorical face of the insurrection that brought the revolution to power. The Bolshevik Party, the vanguard of the revolution, was a highly disciplined party simultaneously above ground and underground. Its organizing principle, its distinctive contribution to the theory of organization, is known as democratic centralism.

The November 7 proclamation ended with a summary of the revolution’s manifesto: “The cause for which the people have fought, namely, the immediate offer of a democratic peace, the abolition of rural and urban landlord ownership, workers’ control over production and the establishment of Soviet power – this cause has now been secured. Long live the socialist revolution of workers, soldiers and peasants”. This was followed by another resolution of the Soviet: the formation of a Provisional Revolutionary Government, headed by Lenin, to govern the country until the inauguration of an All-Russian Congress of Soviets. The new government was to be known as the Council of People’s Commissars. This twin announcement – the proclamation and the resolution – was the opening of what an American journalist, John Reed, later called the ten days that shook the world.

One of the questions which have been repeatedly asked in the last one hundred years by revolutionaries, non-revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries and liberal truth-seekers alike is this: Was what happened in Petrograd on November 7, 1917 a revolution or an insurrection or a variant of the latter? Leon Trotsky provided an answer in his 3-volume History of the Russian Revolution: “Armed insurrection stands in the same relation to revolution that revolution as a whole does to evolution.

It is a critical point when accumulating quantity turns with an explosion into quality …” I may explain further: Every victorious revolution ends in an insurrection, but not every insurrection is a culmination of a revolution. What happened on November 7, 1917 was an insurrection by which a revolution which had been going on for 8 months (specifically since March 8, 1917) and which gave birth to the insurrection came to power. Political power is the main question in a revolution, and it is achieved through an insurrection.

The Russian Revolution – and this is often missed or forgotten – started in Petrograd with women’s demonstration on 1917’s “Women’s Day”. Between March 8 when Tsar Nicolas II effectively lost his throne and capital and November 7 when the Bolsheviks assumed power, what the world witnessed was a historic and classic dual power and power struggle between half-hearted, confused and opportunistic reformers and determined and single-minded revolutionaries.

The Russian Empire whose seizure the Bolshevik revolutionaries announced from a girls’ secondary school in Petrograd was a huge territory covering one-half of Europe and a third of Asia. The empire was a study in tyranny, autocracy and police state. From the reign of Tsar Peter the Great in mid-18th century until the Russian Revolution the State was, as historian Alan Moorehead put it, like a “private domain, a country estate of the Romanov family, or perhaps just simply a school for mentally backward children. Beneath the Tsar there were three great institutions: the bureaucracy, the army and the Holy Synod, and the officials within them were tightly organised like ants in an ant-hill. The peasants were ruled by the police who were responsible to the local governor who was responsible to the Minister of the Interior who was responsible to the Tsar; and the Tsar was responsible only to God”.

Erupting in the fourth year of the First World War, the Russian Revolution can also be seen as having started in 1905 when, as in 1917, an external war (in this case with Japan) worsened the peoples’ material conditions and deepened mass discontent and anger against the Tsarist autocracy. Although the 1905 uprising was defeated, it appeared 12 years later as a “dress rehearsal” for the 1917 Revolution. Several revolutionaries who played leading roles in 1905 simply went back to their posts in 1917.

The 10-day political actions that “shook the world” were captured by the slogan: “Power to the people, Freedom, Bread and Democratic Peace”, that is, “peace without indemnities, annexations or reparations”. The more administrative actions taken during this period included the change of the Russian calendar to correspond with the Western version – which, for instance, changed the date of the revolution from October 25 to November 7 – and the movement of the capital from Petrograd to Moscow to protect the regime and its headquarters from counter-revolutionaries and foreign invaders.

For the next five years, (1917-1922), the revolutionary socialist regime confronted all sorts of turbulence including counter-revolution, civil war, foreign armed interventions and famine. It had to institute an economic programme now known to the world as “war economy”. Eventually, in 1922, having freed all the nations imprisoned in Tsarist Russia, the government was able to announce the establishment of a new state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR, on new foundations. A new constitution appeared two years later, in 1924. A critical article in the 1924 Soviet constitution was the right of each constituent republic, including Russia, to self-determination up to and including political secession. For the enforcement of this right to be practicable, the country was structured in such a way that every constituent republic shared borders with at least one foreign country. In other words, no constituent republic was enclosed by the others.

The enduring lessons which history has extracted from the 1917 Russian Revolution, its trajectory and its collapse 74 years later, in December, 1991, can be grouped under three broad headings: Ideology, Democracy and the National Question. Readers will immediately notice the absence of issues such as the role of imperialism and “wrong” economic strategies and policies. They are missing because they are effects and results rather than causes. My analyses and propositions will be sketchy and will merely indicate areas where grave errors were committed.

To be continued tomorrow.

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