Australasian Spartacist No. 233
Celebrating the 1917 Russian Revolution
For New October Revolutions!
We print below the first part of a presentation given at forums in Sydney and Melbourne in November. This talk, edited for publication, was based on presentations given by Spartacist League/U.S. speaker Diana Coleman at forums in the U.S.
One hundred years ago there occurred the epochal event of our time, the 1917 Russian October Revolution. This was the greatest ever victory for the working people of the world. During the course of the revolution, the multinational proletariat, drawing behind it the peasantry and oppressed nationalities, forged its own organs of class power, the Soviets or workers councils. With the shattering of the old capitalist state, these Soviets, under Bolshevik leadership, formed the basis of the new workers state. The vanguard of the workers understood that they were not just taking power in Russia; they were opening the first chapter of international proletarian revolution. The Russian Revolution inspired workers uprisings throughout Europe and rebellions in colonial countries.
The new Soviet government expropriated the capitalists and repudiated the tsar’s massive debt to foreign bankers. It proclaimed the right of working people to jobs, health care, housing and education. It gave women in Russia an unprecedented level of equality and freedom. Soon after the revolution, two decrees established civil marriage and allowed for divorce at the request of either partner; all laws against homosexual acts and other consensual sexual activity were also abolished.
In its very first acts, the victorious Soviet congress decreed land to the peasants, and to put an end to the slaughter of the imperialist world war, it offered a just and democratic peace without annexations to all belligerent nations. This included freedom for the colonies subjugated by the imperialists and recognising the right to self-determination of all the non-Russian peoples oppressed under tsarist/capitalist rule. When the congress deputies, with Lenin at their head, rose to sing the Internationale—"Arise ye prisoners of starvation! Arise ye wretched of the earth!”—it was a clarion call for world socialist revolution.
Trotsky captures the moment in his incomparable History of the Russian Revolution:
“The words of the song were freed of all qualifications. They fused with the decree of the government, and hence resounded with the force of a direct act
. The heart of the revolution enlarged to the width of the whole world. `We will achieve emancipation
The omnipotent hand of those millions who had overthrown the monarchy and the bourgeoisie would now strangle the war
.`We will build our own new world!’”
Such was the internationalist consciousness of the most advanced worker, soldier and peasant masses in Russia in October 1917!
Today, in these dark times of post-Soviet reaction, the revolutionary events of 1917 seem light years away. But, for those of us fighting to uphold revolutionary Marxism, this event remains both a laboratory and an inspiration. As the founder of American Trotskyism, James P. Cannon, put it in 1939:
“The Russian Bolsheviks on November 7, 1917, once and for all, took the question of the workers’ revolution out of the realm of abstraction and gave it flesh and blood reality
—“Speech on the Russian Question” (1939), printed in Struggle for a Proletarian Party (1943)
The need to get rid of this system of war and destruction through workers revolution has never been more evident. For that, we need a revolutionary Marxist party. Young people coming around politics might assume that in a revolutionary situation the left will all get together in unity and fight for socialism. The experience of the Russian Revolution proves exactly the opposite. If groups like Socialist Alliance, Solidarity or Socialist Alternative have a reformist approach to pressuring the capitalist state now, then when the time comes, like the Mensheviks, they will end up defending capitalism tooth and nail.
The bourgeoisie has always sought to bury the October Revolution under a mountain of lies. They have really been in overdrive this last period. Demented and ignorant articles litter the bourgeois press insisting that the revolution must never happen again. Ominously the Australian Senate even passed a motion, put forward by right-wing conservative Cory Bernardi, declaring that it “rejects any assertion that the teachings of Lenin or Marx should be celebrated in a liberal democracy.” Bourgeois hacks might write articles and the Senate pass motions, but the revolution happened. Just as World War I signalled the descent of the capitalist system into mass slaughter and barbaric destruction, the revolution proved that, to free the planet’s productive forces from capitalist imperialism, proletarian revolution is necessary.
Today capitalism is still enmeshed in fatal contradictions. In its drive for profit it still creates a proletariat with the social power to overthrow the bourgeoisie and it still creates the barbarism that we see all around us. Here in Australia, both the Liberal/National Coalition and the Labor Party, are committed to administering jackal Australian imperialist rule and supporting the counterrevolutionary U.S./Australia alliance. With the U.S. and other imperialist powers, the Australian rulers have in recent times helped destroy whole countries from Libya to Iraq to Syria. Aside from some hand-wringing, the Australian government have backed U.S. president Donald Trump’s crazed threats of nuclear war against the North Korean bureaucratically deformed workers state for their so-called crime of developing nukes to defend themselves. Doubtless the secret U.S. spy bases stationed in Australia are key to any potential strikes. We demand U.S. bases out now! Not one person, not one cent for the bloody Australian imperialist military! Just as we stood in defence of the Soviet Union, today we call for the unconditional military defence of the deformed workers states—Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, China and North Korea against imperialist attack and internal capitalist counterrevolution. It’s a good thing North Korea is developing a nuclear deterrent. Without that they would be bombed to oblivion.
While billions are being spent on military hardware, workers and the oppressed are getting it in the neck. There is relentless union-busting, ever-escalating state repression and surveillance, homelessness, racist police terror against Aboriginal people and Muslims, and barbaric treatment of refugees. This reactionary climate has emboldened racist and fascist forces. There needs to be hard class struggle against this exploitative repressive system. Such struggles will come—it is inevitable under capitalism. Our job is to ensure that there will be a Leninist-Trotskyist party ready to intervene. In that sense this talk is not a passive, ceremonial reminiscence about what happened in 1917. It is also about our determination to build a revolutionary vanguard party to fight for new October Revolutions.
The Permanent Revolution
Only in Russia in October 1917 has a worker and oppressed upsurge resulted in the proletariat taking state power. Uniquely among the socialist organisations of their time, the Bolsheviks had cohered a leadership based on a program for international working-class power. The Russian Revolution was the living confirmation of Trotsky’s program of permanent revolution. Trotsky explained that in dependent countries the democratic tasks historically associated with bourgeois revolutions could not be accomplished by the weak and dependent bourgeoisies who were tied to the imperialist powers by their shared goal to maximise profit from the labour of the oppressed masses.
In 1917 Russia was an example of what Trotsky called combined and uneven development. Up until February of that year the country had been ruled by a reactionary tsarist aristocracy presiding over a prison house of oppressed nations. Seventy million Great Russians constituted the main mass of the country, but there were 90 million “outlanders.” So a majority of the country was oppressed nationalities. A vast mass of a hundred million peasants—who had no mechanised agriculture—made up some 85 percent of the population. They lived in the most backward conditions. Ignorance and illiteracy were the norm. The ancient institutions of the traditional household and the communal village enforced a rigid patriarchal hierarchy and the degradation of women, who were treated like beasts of burden.
Tsarist Russia was the weakest link in the imperialist chain. The Russian bourgeoisie was entirely dependent on European powers, while having its own imperial appetites. But underdeveloped countries do not mechanically go through every stage that the more developed countries went through—they jump over certain aspects while retaining and sometimes reinforcing backward elements. While peasant agriculture was at the level of the 17th century, by 1914 massive investment from Europe in Russia had created a new urban proletariat (one-third were women!) in large-scale, state-of-the-art industrial concentrations. Almost without highways, suddenly Russia was compelled to build railroads. Skipping the stage of European artisanry and manufacture, Russian capitalism passed directly on to mechanised production. The percentage of Russian workers employed in factories of more than 1,000 employees was higher than in Britain, Germany or the U.S.
Against the late-emerging and weak Russian bourgeoisie, who were subordinated to foreign capitalists and tied to the Russian aristocracy, stood a fresh, young and determined proletariat with potential allies and reserves of power in the blighted peasant masses and oppressed nationalities. The Russian capitalist rulers knew that any mass upsurge against tsarism could ultimately sweep them away too unless it was put down.
Trotsky projected that despite the economic backwardness of the country, the Russian proletariat could come to power before an extended period of capitalist development. Indeed, the workers would have to come to power if Russia was to be liberated from its feudal past—because the weak and cowardly capitalists, too scared to lift their hand against feudal property, surely were not going to do it! That said, Trotsky stressed that the proletariat could not succeed and survive without the support of the mass of peasants.
Ever since the 1905 Revolution, which was a dress rehearsal for the events of 1917, Trotsky had argued that the socially heterogeneous peasant mass could not play an independent role in, let alone lead, the revolution. Explaining the combined character of the revolution, Trotsky remarked:
“Once the peasant bear stands up on his hind feet, he becomes terrible in his wrath. But he is unable to give conscious expression to his indignation. He needs a leader. For the first time in the history of the world, the insurrectionary peasantry found a faithful leader in the person of the proletariat.”
—“Leon Trotsky Defends the October Revolution” printed in the Militant, 21 January 1933
Indeed it was only the proletariat that could break the nexus between foreign capital, the banks, the industrialists and the large landowners, and thus deliver land to the poor peasants. Trotsky emphasised, “The proletariat in power will stand before the peasants as the class which has emancipated it” and that the role of the proletariat as “the leading force” would destroy the borderline between the minimum and maximum program and place “collectivism on the order of the day.”
In his article, “Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution” (August 1939), Trotsky explained the other key aspect of the program of permanent revolution, “Only the victory of the proletariat in the west will shield Russia from bourgeois restoration and secure for her the possibility of bringing the socialist construction to its conclusion.” However, the failure to build parties on the Bolshevik model outside of Russia helped ensure that history would turn out differently. Following the defeat of revolutionary opportunities in west Europe, particularly Germany, the fledgling Soviet state found itself surrounded by a hostile capitalist world. Under these conditions and after several years of desperate civil war leading to the physical destruction of cadre, industry and infrastructure, there developed tendencies in Russia towards bureaucratic commandism and an attenuation of revolutionary internationalism. Beginning in 1923-24 these tendencies culminated in a political counterrevolution, which found its supreme leader in Joseph Stalin and his anti-Bolshevik program of “socialism in one country.” After Lenin’s death the forces of revolutionary internationalism, personified by Trotsky and his followers, were ultimately defeated and later physically exterminated.
World War I and Lenin’s Fight against Social Chauvinism
The conflagration of World War I sparked revolutionary struggle while throwing a spotlight over the self-proclaimed socialist parties internationally. It triggered the collapse of the Second “Socialist” International, which the Bolsheviks had considered themselves part of, when the vast majority of its affiliated parties lined up behind their own bourgeoisies’ war efforts. This had a profound impact on Lenin who at first didn’t believe it when he heard that the German Social Democratic parliamentary group had unanimously voted to fund the war.
From the beginning of the war in 1914 Lenin hammered away at two related themes: the need to split from the social traitors of the Second International and to fight for a new, Third International and the call to turn the imperialist war into a civil war against the whole rotting capitalist system. Lenin’s program for the working classes of all the warring countries was revolutionary defeatism—i.e., the defeat of one’s own bourgeoisie is the lesser evil, turn the guns around—the main enemy is at home!
Later, in 1916, Lenin wrote the book Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism. It provided a theoretical explanation for the imperialist first world war. In this work Lenin proved that such wars are not caused by particular capitalist government policies but that they are a function of and flow from monopoly capitalism. In this book he also outlined the material basis for social-chauvinist betrayal amongst the leaders of the workers movement of the imperialist countries. Lenin’s writings during the war years leading up to 1917 pounded away on revolutionary opposition to the imperialist war. They excoriated not only the overtly pro-war fake socialists, but also the centrists like Kautsky, who covered for them. At the same time, and inter-connectedly, he hammered away in defence of the rights of oppressed national minorities against even the slightest bowing to social chauvinism.
National Liberation Struggles and Socialist Revolution
Another revolutionary reserve of the proletariat were the myriad oppressed nationalities who in the main were also peasants. There were Ukrainians, Belorussians, Armenians, Poles, Ossetians, Tajiks, Tatars, Azeris and so forth. The demands of the Great Russian state led to savage exploitation and rough denial of national rights.
We in the ICL have just had an internal struggle against a longstanding perversion of Leninism on the national question, particularly in relation to oppressed nations like Quebec and Catalonia within multinational states. As the fight unfolded internationally, it exposed a number of examples of chauvinist positions in opposition to just national struggles of oppressed nations. To get a sense of how our previous line represented a capitulation to the pressures of Anglophone imperialism read the latest Spartacist “The Struggle Against the Chauvinist Hydra” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 65, Summer 2017).
The main point we make is that our previous line often went against Lenin’s very extensive writings on the national question. In one of his most famous pamphlets “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” also written in 1916, Lenin asserted the following:
“Victorious socialism must necessarily establish a full democracy and, consequently, not only introduce full equality of nations but also realise the right of the oppressed nations to self-determination, i.e., the right to free political separation. Socialist parties which did not show by all their activity, both now, during the revolution, and after its victory, that they would liberate the enslaved nations and build up relations with them on the basis of a free union—and free union is a false phrase without the right to secede—these parties would be betraying socialism.”
This applied not only to colonies, but to countries forcibly retained within multinational states like the Russian prison house, or Spain today. As Lenin wrote:
“The proletariat must struggle against the enforced retention of the oppressed nations within the bounds of the given state
. Otherwise, the internationalism of the proletariat would be nothing but empty words...”
“On the other hand, the socialists of the oppressed nations must, in particular, defend and implement the full and unconditional unity, including organisational unity, of the workers of the oppressed nation and those of the oppressor nation. Without this it is impossible to defend the independent policy of the proletariat and their class solidarity with the proletariat of other countries in face of all manner of intrigues, treachery and trickery on the part of the bourgeoisie.”
During the war years Lenin waged a struggle against the advocates of what he called “imperialist economism.” The original economists of whom he spoke in his 1902 work What Is To Be Done? thought that the economic struggle was everything and there was no need to bother with struggle around political questions. The imperialist economists thought that since imperialism had triumphed, there was no need to bother with the problems of political democracy and self-determination. Lenin denounced these economists for arguing that “self-determination is impossible under capitalism and superfluous under socialism” (“A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism” ). He adamantly disagreed with both propositions.
In fact Lenin’s emphasis on championing the struggles of national minorities was a key to the success of the Russian Revolution. Against what Lenin described as “the contemptuous attitude of imperialist Economism towards democracy,” it was the Bolsheviks who intransigently championed the democratic right of self-determination, that is, the right of full secession. This position resonated with and engendered trust among the masses of the oppressed nations and was key to making the Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks saw that national liberation struggles could be catalysts for socialist revolution and sought to unleash their revolutionary potential.
So national liberation can be a motor force for proletarian rule if the proletariat acquires a revolutionary consciousness and it is led by a communist party. Fighting national oppression is one of the things the Bolsheviks were known for, as well as their worker mobilisations against anti-Jewish pogroms by the fascistic Black Hundreds. As Lenin said in What Is To Be Done?, the party must be the “tribune of the people
able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression.”
[TO BE CONTINUED]