Socialism Is Much Better Than Capitalism and Communism Will Be A Far Better World
Part 3: The Bolsheviks Lead a Revolution That Shakes the World
Revolution #027, December 19, 2005, posted at revcom.us
In February 1917, massive strikes and demonstrations by workers in what is today St. Petersburg brought down the Tsar. A liberal coalition government took over — but failed to satisfy the most basic needs and demands of the masses, and continued Russia's participation in the horrific First World War. In October 1917, the Bolsheviks led an armed mass insurrection that swept away the old regime.
John Reed wrote a vivid account of the heroism and excitement of the October Revolution: the organization of railway workers, tense meetings in factories, proclamations and preparations for the uprising, the sailors and battalions of armed workers in Kronstadt spearheading the final assault on key government centers. A new revolutionary government was formed. It immediately issued two stunning decrees: one ending Russia's involvement in World War 1; another empowering peasants to seize the vast landholdings of the tsarist crown, gentry, and church. These measures signaled titanic political and social change for the masses. Their day had come. In late October, when the remnants of the overthrown government launched a last-ditch effort to retake power, thousands and thousands of workers, women and men, poured forth from factories and working class quarters to defend the revolution.
Now, one of the lies about the Bolshevik Revolution--and this is standard fare in the anti-communist literature — is that it was really a manipulative coup by the Bolsheviks. Heres the story line: A political vacuum is created by the disintegration of the old order; Lenin takes power illegally, but succeeds through deceit and authoritarian politics to maintain his position.
Whats wrong with this picture? Basically two things.
First, it paints over the oppressive conditions that impelled millions to rise up. Richard Pipes, a bourgeois expert on the Russian Revolution, says in one his major works, "Those who experienced the Russian Revolution would never see the return of normalcy. The revolution was only the beginning of their sorrows." As though things were just fine before the revolution - without sorrow.
But let's look at the situation before the revolution. In the countryside, where the majority of people lived, wooden plows were still in common use. Superstition and religion exerted a tight grip over daily life. Holy days still set the dates for the sowing of land. Wife beating was rampant. In the cities, epidemic diseases ravaged the populace. An autocracy ruled society, with a vast network of police, jails and surveillance. Minority languages and cultures were suppressed. This was normalcy before the Revolution. And it became more unbearable when Russia entered World War 1. Peasants were forcibly conscripted into the tsarist army and workers turned into cannon fodder.
This story line of a coup by Lenin also blots out that the fact that the revolution was profoundly shaped by the collective action and aspirations of workers and peasants. The revolution developed in an atmosphere of widespread social disaffection, mass resistance, and great intellectual ferment.
And what about Lenin and the vanguard party he led? This party was prepared to act and to lead as no other force in Russian society was. It had grassroots strength and organization in factory committees, in the armed forces, in the soviets (these were illegal, anti-government, representative assemblies of workers contesting for power in the big towns and cities). The Bolshevik program and vision resonated in society. The values and institutions of the old order were widely despised. And the new proletarian power became the basis for new social values as well as revolutionary economic and social relations.
John Reed called his account of October: Ten Days That Shook The World. And it was no exaggeration.
Across war-ravaged Europe, exhausted soldiers, sailors, and workers of the belligerent countries heard that a victorious socialist country had called for peace, for an end to the slaughter — a peace without annexations or conquest. And they were stirred. In Kiel and Hamburg, the rebel sailors of the Germany navy mutinied against orders to continue the war. They raised the red flag and called their new power "councils" (which is what soviet means). And they dreamed of taking the whole country down this road.
At the other end of the world, in Seattle, workers rose up for five days in the 1919 general strike. The local ruling class screamed that this was the start of insurrection, that Seattle was becoming St. Petersburg. And though this strike was far from that, the influence and the model of Russia's revolution was intensely alive in the minds of the workers too. Later that year, the U.S. government sent ammunition to arm the counterrevolution in Russia. When trainloads of this ammunition went through Seattle, the longshore workers refused to load it onto transport ships.
When the Russian revolution erupted, when it took its radical turn in October — when communists (and not merely bourgeois democratic modernizers) emerged as the leadership of a society--the whole world quivered with the newness of it. Old struggles suddenly appeared in a new light. The oppressors took fearful notice; the oppressed had a new gleam. Workers taught themselves to read to catch this news; at small meetings after work they scoured the press and debated the meaning of these strange new words — soviet, socialism — and these strange new names — Lenin, Marx, Stalin. Mao Tsetung said that the salvos fired by the Bolshevik Revolution brought Marxism to China.
You want to know how earthshaking October was? Listen to Winston Churchill, speaking in 1949, more than 30 years after the Bolsheviks came to power: "The failure to strangle Bolshevism at its birth and bring Russia, then prostrate, by one means or another into the general democratic system lies heavy upon us today."
The historian Eric Hobsbawm makes a very interesting observation. He says that the American Civil War was both the greatest war between 1815 and 1914 and by far the greatest in American history. But the American Civil War did not have a great effect on what happened in other parts of the world. On the other hand, the Bolshevik Revolution stands as an epochal, world-changing phenomenon: for what it meant to the peoples of Russia, for what it meant to the people of the world, for what it meant for the ruling classes and reactionary forces of the world, and for the ways in which it influenced world events.
World capitalism could not proceed as it had before. One-sixth of the globe was now closed off to imperialist exploitation. The imperialists worried about the ideological contamination of the Bolshevik revolution. This was a big factor behind the granting of certain benefits to workers, to buy social peace, in the western capitalist countries.
The imperialists tried to crush the Soviet revolution. They tried to strangle it in its cradle. And they kept coming at it. They applied economic pressure, including the world's first oil embargo. They threatened military attack. They viciously suppressed revolutionary forces in neighboring central and east-central Europe. They built up opposition forces in Soviet society.
NEXT WEEK: The social revolution ushered in by the new proletarian power.