If one event shaped the course of the 20th century, it was the Russian Revolution of October 1917, which established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, i.e. the Soviet Union.
Regardless of one’s political ideology, understanding the context of the Russian Revolution, what led to it, and its founding principles, is essential for having a full understanding of how and why the 20th century progressed as it did. Moreover, with this understanding, we may be able to evaluate how we can influence the progression of the 21st century today.
Before 1917, Russia was governed by an absolutist monarchy, with Nicolas “The Bloody” II as its emperor. His reign was characterized by immense inequality between the upper classes (the nobility and capitalists), and lower classes (workers and peasants) who toiled in exceptionally dangerous and violent working conditions for very little pay.
Combined with this inequality was the severe oppression of women and all non-“Great Russian” nationalities (especially Jews, where persecution by pogrom was more the norm rather than the exception). The Czar’s regime combined a complete lack of political freedom with a powerful and far reaching police state. The threat imposed by this police state forced those who sought to fight oppression – the Marxists who constituted the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) – to operate clandestinely just to print a copy of their newspaper without facing imprisonment.
It was under these conditions, combined with the famine and horror characteristic of World War I (beginning in 1914), that would eventually impel the Russian working classes to seek a revolutionary solution to their oppression. Only the Bolshevik party (the Russian communists) would provide the engine that could compress this steam of revolutionary sentiment – of the cries for “peace, land, and bread” – into what they believed, as Marxists, was the only solution to the problems of Russia (and capitalism in general): the seizure of all political and economic power by the working class.
For 100 years, the working classes of the capitalist countries have been subject to campaigns of slander and disinformation to tarnish the name of the Soviet Union as always having been a bureaucratic totalitarian regime. Interestingly, the vast majority of people who have been taught (by no fault of their own) to grimace at the name “Soviet Union” would not be able to tell you what even was a “soviet”. In fact, soviets were formed in the midst of the revolutionary fervor of 1917 (as well as during the failed revolution of 1905). They were popular councils created by workers and peasants who democratically elected representatives (subject to recall by popular demand at any time) to take part in directing economic tasks and concretizing political platforms. The soviets were grassroots organs of direct democracy; the Bolsheviks – and eventually the masses themselves – simply believed that these bodies should be united to constitute a new ultra-democratic government of Russia. This government of the working class would replace the bourgeois parliament which could not satisfy the demands of the masses.
By the month of October (November in our calendar), the masses of Russia experienced firsthand the ideals of capitalism and bourgeois parliaments. These institutions had become crystallized during the rule of the Provisional Government, formed as a result of the February Revolution earlier that year. The bulk of the Russian working class realized that their interests were not consistent with those of the Russian aristocrats and capitalists, many of whom had no desire to end the war, who actually sought to perpetuate the war effort in the interests of profit. It was this context, and especially the overwhelming desire of the masses for peace, that impelled the Bolsheviks to act.
In the name of bringing “all power to the soviets,” the Bolsheviks would lead the revolutionary insurrection on October 26th (November 7th) and establish the first socialist state in history. The legitimacy of their seizure of power was confirmed by the working class in the elections of the 2nd Congress of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets only days later, where the Bolsheviks obtained a majority (60 per cent) of the delegates.
The principles of equality and democracy, the idea that the free development of each was the condition for the free development of all, the idea that the people should own the products of their labor and thus be able to determine their own destinies: these were the principles of the October Revolution and the Bolshevik party.
Today, in the context of extreme inequality, social crisis, and political crisis, people are beginning to realize that these principles are worth fighting for. The capitalist system we find ourselves in, where eight individuals can own as much wealth as 3.6 billion people, has revealed itself not only as unjust, but as structurally incapable of satisfying the needs of the majority of the world’s population and the planet itself (even according to Bill Gates).
In Canada, Socialist Fightback (part of the International Marxist Tendency), seeks to play a decisive role in the struggle against capitalism. Fightback participates in movements and protests and gives public presentations to educate people on the historical experiences of working class and youth movements against oppression.
Seeking to educate people on the principles of Marxist theory by learning from the failures and successes of the Bolsheviks, Fightback is hosting its annual Marxist Winter School February 18th and 19th. There will be presentations on the lessons of the revolution, what went wrong, and the impact of the revolution in Quebec, Canada, and the U.S. The students and workers of Fightback promote the surprisingly controversial idea that billionaires should not have the fate of the world in their hands, that instead the world should be owned and controlled by all of its inhabitants democratically. Anyone is welcome to attend the Winter School, and if you seek to get more involved in the struggle against capitalism, feel free to contact Fightback personally.
Kian Kenyon-Dean is a member of Socialist Fightback. Contact him here at firstname.lastname@example.org