Articles, recommended reading and other resources documenting and analysing events and consequent developments leading up to the socialist Revolution in Russia.

 Here is a link to the Marx Memorial Library's webpages on the Russian Revolution where there is a video to watch and links to further information.

http://www.marx-memorial-library.org/russian-revolution

 


IN THIS centenary year of the Russian Revolution books will be published, op-eds written and programmes broadcast about the dramatic events of 1917 and their impact on the 20th century.

In the mainstream media few are likely to look at whether the “10 days that shook the world,” when Lenin led the first successful socialist revolution, have helped shape the planet we live on today, or whether they retain the power to shake the world again in years to come.

The revolution will be presented as history — and socialist and communist ideas as done and dusted, dead and buried. How many of us have heard that socialism “doesn’t work,” that it was tried in Russia and it failed?

Of course, the revolution is part of history and it did shape the 20th century. The great Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm even defined his “short 20th century” as 1914-1991, a period almost coterminous with the existence of the Soviet state.

The great events of the century all took place in the context of the global struggle between socialism and capitalism.

The rise of fascism was a ruling-class response to the threat of social revolution and the defeat of the nazis would not have been possible without the heroic sacrifices made by communists — many of them soldiers in the Red Army, which “tore the guts out of the nazi war machine,” to quote Winston Churchill — but also partisans and resistance fighters in every corner of occupied Europe.

The latter part of the century is held up in the text books as dominated by the “cold war,” supposedly between the democratic West and the wicked and sinister communists.

A wider view, encompassing the titanic Third World battles against colonialism, paints a more complex picture.

The contributions of communists were again key, both as fighters in the front line of liberation struggles in China, Vietnam, Cuba, South Africa and many other countries. And the Soviet-led socialist camp was also a supporter of anti-colonial movements the world over, providing everything from diplomatic backing at the UN to cash and arms when needed.

To many Africans, Asians and Latin Americans, the Soviet Union was a friend and ally against domination and exploitation by the so-called “free world.”

Much of this history is hidden. Children in our schools are not taught about the millions of victims of British imperialism during the Bengal famine, the “Malayan emergency” or the suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya.

To do so would undermine the myth of a benevolent, enlightened West playing the role of history’s good guys, standing up to the nefarious Reds.

Communists, liberals charge to this day, were guilty of terrible atrocities in Russia, China and elsewhere and there is no point in seeking to defend the indefensible when revolutionary governments had innocent blood on their hands.

But that is not the whole story of revolutions inspired by that of 1917, which also won tremendous achievements in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, spreading education and literacy to populations that were previously illiterate and massively extending life expectancy through modern sanitation and free healthcare.

That’s not even mentioning the extraordinary cultural and scientific advances made in the Soviet Union, which sent the first human being into space.

The impact of the revolution was felt way beyond the socialist countries, who helped found the United Nations and define human rights by pushing for recognition of a universal right to shelter and food, for example, against opposition from the capitalist West.

Britain’s National Health Service, offering healthcare to all free at the point of use, owes much to the inspiration of free healthcare in the Soviet Union, as does the welfare safety net put in place by the Labour government of 1945-51.

Since the triumph of neoliberal ideologies in Britain and the United States in the 1980s, we have seen a mammoth effort to undermine and dismantle our social security system, one which continues in the privatisation of our NHS and the cruel and unusual punishment meted out to disabled people in this country today.

The social-democratic compromise of the postwar period was always vulnerable; the interests of working people and the super-rich few who own the banks and the big businesses are simply not compatible. The collapse of socialism in eastern Europe removed the constant leftward pressure that kept social democracy in western Europe alive.

We have since seen a ruthless drive to marketise every service and exploit every natural, human and social resource beyond remotely sustainable levels — capitalism, as Karl Marx once put it, weeping from every pore with blood and dirt.

If we don’t like the poverty and war that are synonymous with modern capitalism, we might think again whether the dismissers who say the Russian Revolution “failed” are right.

Certainly socialism came to an end in the Soviet countries in 1991 and there was a capitalist restoration. Yet, though the kings returned to Britain and France after their revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, the liberating ideas those upheavals unleashed were not defeated but have borne fruit around the world ever since.

The overwhelming rejection of a tired, corrupt and out-of-touch Establishment we are seeing now in this country, across Europe and in the United States, suggests that capitalism is not delivering and that it can again be challenged.

Revolutions don’t proceed according to instruction manuals and the events of that October night in Russia a hundred years ago are not going to be replicated in London or Washington. But the experiences of the world’s first socialist country are of huge and continuing relevance.

The Morning Star is proud to be part of the Russian Revolution Centenary Committee and, over the coming year, we hope to do our bit in discovering what that revolution meant, and still means, for the prospects of a world free of hatred, oppression and exploitation — one in which humans are never objects to be used but people whose amazing potential has the time and space to flourish.

Ben Chacko is editor of the Morning Star.

 

ON THE evening of November 7 1917 a small group of frightened men — ministers of Russia’s Provisional Government — waited in the imperial throne room of the Winter Palace.

At 3am, they were taken into custody. A few hours later they were released.

By then, Russia’s socialist revolution had taken place. Over previous days, the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies had secured control of most of the city. Across Russia’s towns and cities, committees of workers and soldiers were similarly in possession.
There were only isolated attempts at resistance, mainly by remnants of the tsarist officer corps.
 
Russia’s socialist revolution was almost entirely peaceful and was so because the old order had lost all support. It was also a democratic revolution, restoring power to the only legitimate democratic bodies in Russia at the time, the workers’ committees — Soviets — elected during the earlier February revolution.

This is the real history of the October Revolution. Most accounts circulating today would claim the opposite — that it was a bloody coup carried out by a minority of Bolshevik extremists and for that reason only sustained by a reign of terror.

Not so. The October Revolution was a mass revolution carried through by the Russian working class and its allies among the working peasantry.  

To understand why this extraordinary event was possible, some historical background is needed on the nature of Russian capitalism, Russia’s revolutionary traditions and on what divided its two main left parties, the Mensheviks and Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

Lenin described Russia as the “weakest link” in the chain of imperialism, though its imperialism was highly aggressive. Over the previous half century its conquests in the Caucasus, Siberia, Central Asia, the Far East and Manchuria had seen the seizure of more territory than any of its rivals.  Yet this aggression was a product of weakness.

Russia’s capitalist development was late and dependent. It relied on capital from France, Britain and the United States and these investors sought super-profits from the raw materials of the Russian empire and its cheap labour.

Overall, 33 per cent of the capital for Russia’s industrialisation came from France, Britain and the US. In coal, foreign ownership was 74 per cent, in iron and steel 54 per cent and in chemicals 50 per cent and oil 45 per cent.   

Russia’s capitalists were therefore dependent, and knew they were dependent, on the military machine of the tsarist autocracy, not just for their profits but also for their own protection in face of Russia’s insurgent population.

The country’s revolutionary traditions were profound and mass-based. The centuries’ long struggle against serfdom eventually secured its abolition in 1861, only to precipitate the rural population into an even more lethal form of financial servitude.

They were compelled to compensate their former owners and sell the food, and increasingly the land, that they needed for subsistence. The size of holdings diminished and poverty increased.

As in Ireland, this produced resistance — strengthened in Russia’s case by continuing traditions of communal organisation. Tens of thousands of local risings occurred in the two decades before 1914 and this tradition of resistance was taken into the towns and cities by the hundreds of thousands now displaced from the countryside.  

By 1914, Russia had just short of four million industrial workers, concentrated in the two great capital cities of Petersburg and Moscow. They worked in giant factories, the biggest in the world, and lived within striking distance of the main seats of imperial power.
The big question, the one that divided the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, was how to lead this movement.

Like their right-wing colleagues in western Europe, the Mensheviks argued that capitalism had to fully mature before any advance into socialism and that the task of socialists meantime was to support the bourgeoisie in developing liberal parliamentary institutions and, for themselves, to strengthen labour movement organisation.

Any revolutionary challenge was out of the question. But Lenin disagreed. Whatever might be the case in western Europe, this was not so in Russia.  Its capitalist class was dependent on the tsarist autocracy for markets, for external expansion and simply to defend it against an insurgent population.

The 1905 Revolution had already demonstrated that Russia’s new bourgeoisie was incapable of pushing forward any type of democratic transformation that could change the balance of class forces.

In Russia, said Lenin, it was the working class that had to lead the challenge to the tsarist autocracy and its empire. And it had to do so in alliance with the insurgent peasantry and Russia’s subject peoples and hence champion the right to national self-determination.

By contrast, the Mensheviks did not support self-determination and saw Russia’s territorial expansion as essential for its capitalist development.

Predictably, when war came in 1914 the Mensheviks, like right-wing social democrats elsewhere, supported it.
The Bolsheviks opposed it.

By February 1917, millions had died at the front and there was near starvation in the cities. The trigger for the first February revolution was a march of women factory workers in Petrograd demanding bread. That nice family man Nicholas II ordered the army to clear the streets and, as was his wont, congratulated his troops on the resulting massacre.

But the garrison troops in Petrograd were having none of it. They mutinied and joined the workers, while the tsar’s own high command forced him to abdicate.  

The response of workers was to recreate the Workers’ Committees, or Soviets, that had been a feature of the 1905 Revolution. Every workplace elected delegates, with the Petrograd Soviet numbering thousands of mandated members. These Soviets represented direct democracy, the only type that Russia possessed.

It was at this point that crucial differences arose between the Bolsheviks and the Menshevik Social Democrats and their Socialist Revolutionaries (SR) allies, the party representing the better-off peasants.

The Mensheviks wanted to continue the war. Together with the SRs, they had majority support in most Soviets, above all in Petrograd and used their majority to return governmental powers to the old tsarist war cabinet, the ministers to whom Nicholas II had handed power. It was these men who became the Provisional Government, with the later addition of a couple of Menshevik and SR ministers including Alexander Kerensky.  

The consequences soon demonstrated the correctness of Lenin’s analysis. Far from conceding democratic rights, this new “liberal” government, in its drive to mobilise resources for the war, moved quickly to the right.

In July, mass demonstrations erupted in Petrograd demanding peace and economic justice. Demonstrators were shot down and remaining civil liberties suspended.

Under its new leader Kerensky, the Provisional Government then sought to transform its political base. It gave control of war policy to demagogic tsarist general Lavr Kornilov and, to the anger of both workers and peasants, convened an assembly of landlords and industrialists.

This proved the turning point. Support for the Mensheviks in the Soviets collapsed and the SRs split. By August-September, the Bolsheviks and their left SR allies had majorities in almost all the Soviets across Russia.

The Bolshevik demand was now for all power to the Soviets, the return of power to Russia’s only democratic institutions.
Their slogan Peace, Bread and Land sought to unite Russia’s working masses in the cities and in the countryside for a new order, one in which working people themselves could take control.  

On November 7, they did. John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World documents the bewildering sense of freedom — together with the understanding by ordinary people that the world had totally changed and they themselves were changing it.

For the world outside, the news of a Russian workers’ revolution transformed expectations of what was possible. In Austria and Germany, anti-war strikes and mutinies erupted through December and January 1918.

In Britain, the anti-war movement was massively strengthened. Strikes swept through the munitions industries as anti-war shop stewards won support from their fellow workers. Mass arrests, including that of Scottish revolutionary socialist John Maclean, followed.

“I am not here,” he told the court, “as the accused. I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.”

The lesson was not lost on those he accused. From November 1917, the agents of Britain and France in Russia spent small fortunes rallying the remnants of the tsarist forces.

Within three months, still in the midst of the first world war, British troops had landed in Russia followed by those from France, the United States, Romania and Japan.

Winston Churchill, the British War Minister, declared it his intention to “strangle Bolshevism at birth.”

In the ensuing war, lasting till 1920, hundreds of thousands did die. By a neat trick of omission, one leading British academic, in a short history recently published by Oxford University Press, attributes all these deaths to the Bolshevik “reign of terror.”

No reference whatsoever is made to the troops, funds and munitions sent by his own country to sustain the proto-fascist tsarist forces murdering their way across Russia.

This war did exact a terrible toll on the revolution and the Russian working class. But the revolution survived, transforming the balance of world forces for two generations, helping to lift the yoke of colonialism from the majority of the world’s people and, in the second world war, ensuring the defeat of fascism.

John Foster is international secretary of the Communist Party.