The revolt that shook the world

History does not travel in a straight line. I won’t argue against that sentence being a cliché. Yet it is still true. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be still debating the meaning of the October Revolution on its centenary, and more than a quarter-century after its demise.

Neither the Bolsheviks or any other party had played a direct role in the February revolution that toppled the tsar, for leaders of those organizations were in exile abroad or in Siberia, or in jail. Nonetheless the tireless work of activists laid the groundwork. The Bolsheviks were a minority even among the active workers of Russia’s cities then, but later in the year, their candidates steadily gained majorities in all the working class organizations — factory committees, unions and soviets. The slogan of “peace, bread, land” resonated powerfully.

The time had come for the working class to take power. Should they really do it? How could backward Russia with a vast rural population still largely illiterate possibly leap all the way to a socialist revolution? The answer was in the West — the Bolsheviks were convinced that socialist revolutions would soon sweep Europe, after which advanced industrial countries would lend ample helping hands. The October Revolution was staked on European revolution, particularly in Germany.

The beginning of the October Revolution in Nizhny Novgorod on the Annunciation Square

We can’t replay the past and counterfactuals are generally sterile exercises. History is what it is. It would be easy, and overly simplistic, to see European revolution as romantic dreaming, as many historians would like us to believe. Germany came close to a successful revolution, and likely would have done so with better leadership and without the treachery of the Social Democrats who suppressed their own rank and file in alliance with the profoundly undemocratic Germany army. That alone would have profoundly changed the 20th century. And provided impetus to the uprisings sparking off across the continent.

Consider the words of British prime minister David Lloyd George in 1919 as he discussed his fears with Georges Clemenceau, the French prime minister: “The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent, but of anger and revolt among the workmen against prewar conditions. The whole existing order, in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other.”

What country goes first?

Russia was the weak link in European capitalism and the stresses of World War I added to the conditions for a revolution. Not an inevitability. Leon Trotsky’s analogy of a steam engine comes to life here: “Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”

The October Revolution wouldn’t have happened without a lot of steam; without masses of people in motion working toward a goal. The revolution faced enormous problems, assuming it could withstand the counter-assault of a capitalist world determined to destroy it. The revolution was a beacon for millions around the world as strikes and uprisings, inspired by the example of Russians, touched off across Europe and North America. Dock and rail workers in Britain, France, Italy and the United States showed solidarity through refusing to load ships intended to be sent to support the counterrevolutionary White Armies that massacred without pity. Armies, assisted by 14 invading countries, that sought to drown the revolution in blood.

The revolution survived. But the revolutionaries inherited a country in ruins, subjected to embargoes that allowed famines and epidemics to rage. The cities emptied of the new government’s working class base, the country surrounded by hostile capitalist governments. There was one thing the Bolshevik leaders had agreed on: Revolutionary Russia could not survive without revolutions in at least some countries of Europe, both to lend helping hands and to create a socialist bloc sufficiently large enough to survive. The October Revolution would go under if European revolution failed.

Meeting at the Putilov Factory (1917)

Yet here they were. What to do? With no road map, shattered industry, depopulated cities and infrastructure systematically destroyed by all armies hostile to the revolution — having endured seven years of world war and civil war — the Bolsheviks had no alternative to falling back on Russia’s own resources. Those resources included workers and peasants. For it was from them that the capital needed to rebuild the country and then begin to build an infrastructure that could put Russia on a path toward actual socialism, as opposed to an aspirational goal well into the future, would come.

The debates on this, centering on tempo and how much living standards could be short-changed to develop industry, raged through the 1920s. Russia’s isolation, the dispersal of the working class, the inability of a new working class assembled from the peasantry to assert its interests and the centralization necessary to survive a hostile world — all compounded by ever tightening grasps on political power by ever narrowing groups that flowed from the country’s isolation — would culminate in the dictatorship of Stalin.

Privatization ends chance of democratic control

Stalin would one day be gone and the terror he used to maintain power gone with him. But the political superstructure remained — the single party controlling economic, political and cultural life, and the overcentralized economic system that steadily became a more significant fetter on development. The Soviet system was overdue for large-scale reforms, including giving the workers in whose name the party ruled much more say in how the factories (and the country itself) were run. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, and the country’s enterprises were put in private hands at minuscule fractions of the value of those enterprises, the chance to build a real democracy vanished.

A real democracy? Yes. For without economic democracy, there can be no political democracy. The capitalist world we currently inhabit testifies to that. What if the people of the Soviet Union had rallied to their own cause? What if the enterprises of that vast country had become democratized — some combination of cooperatives and state property with democratic control? That could have happened because the economy was already in state hands. That could have happened because a large majority of the Soviet people wanted just that. Not capitalism.

They were unable to intervene during perestroika. Nor did they realize what was in store for them once the Soviet Union was disbanded, and Boris Yeltsin could impose shock therapy that threw tens of millions into poverty and would eventually cause a 45 percent reduction in gross domestic product — much deeper than the U.S. contraction during the Great Depression.

A revolution that began with three words — peace, bread, land — and a struggle to fulfill that program ended with imposed “shock therapy” — a term denoting the forced privatization and destruction of social safety nets coined by neoliberal godfather Milton Friedman as he provided guidance to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Millions brought that revolution to life; three people (the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus) put an end to it in a private meeting. With the financial weapons of the capitalist powers looming in the background, ready to pounce.

The Soviet model won’t be recreated. That does not mean we have nothing to learn from it. One important lesson from revolutions that promised socialism (such as the October Revolution) and revolutions that promised a better life through a mixed economy (such as the Sandinista Revolution) is that a democratic economy and thus a stable political democracy has to rest on popular control of the economy — or, to use the old-fashioned term, the means of production.

Leaving most of the economy in the hands of capitalists gives them the power to destroy the economy, as Nicaragua found out in the 1980s and Venezuela is finding out today. Putting all of the enterprises in the hands of a centralized state and its bureaucracy reproduces alienation on the part of those whose work makes it run. It also puts into motion distortions and inefficiencies because no small group of people, no matter how dedicated, can master all the knowledge necessary to make the vast array of decisions that make it work smoothly.

The world of 2017 is different from the world of 1917; for one, the looming environmental and global-warming crisis of today gives us additional impetus to transcend the capitalist system. We need to produce and consume less, not more, unlike those of a century ago. We need the participation of everyone, not bureaucracy. Planning from below with flexibility, not rigid planning imposed from above. But we need also learn from the many advancements of the 20th century’s revolutions — the ideals of full employment, culture available for everyone, affordable housing and health care as human rights, dignified retirements, and that human beings exploiting and stunting the development of other human beings for personal gain is an affront.

The march forward of human history is not a gift from gods above nor presents handed us from benevolent rulers, governments, institutions or markets — it is the product of collective human struggle on the ground. If revolutions fall short, or fail, that simply means the time has come again to try again and do it better next time.

This article originally ran in the Indypendent newspaper of New York.


13 comments on “The revolt that shook the world

  1. Magpie says:

    “The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you are going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins. In order for somebody to win an important, major fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got to be willing — for the sheer fun and joy of it — to go right ahead and fight, knowing they’re going to lose.

    “You mustn’t feel like a martyr. You’ve got to enjoy it.” (I.F. Stone)

    Socialism or barbarism, that’s our choice. I was, I am, I shall be.

    • Only through the conscious action of the working masses in city and country can it be brought to life, only through the people’s highest intellectual maturity and inexhaustible idealism can it be brought safely through all storms and find its way to port.

  2. Prole Center says:

    I’m much more forgiving of the Soviet Union than you are, and I recognize its flaws. I also think that their top-down approach was the only possible way to protect the revolution from enemies within and without. I think I’ve probably looked at a lot of the same historical evidence as you and I’ve come to a different conclusion. I’m not opposed to more decentralization and local autonomy in theory, but the devil is in the details. I do believe that we need a strong state and security apparatus to defend the revolution.

    • The revolution could only have survived with strong centralization, true. And, at a very minimum, state control of the commanding heights of the economy and centralized systems of food distribution were necessities also. The incredible buildup of industry, without which the Soviet Union could not have survived the Nazi invasion, could not have been achieved without centralization, although it should have been done with less of a human cost.

      When does the centralization and top-down control necessary to create a state dialectically become a fetter? There is no easy answer to that. The Soviet system was created to take an undeveloped country with mass illiteracy to an industrial power in a short period of time, and it reflected the cultural customs and norms of Russia, the dominant nation within the Soviet Union. But when a country is producing more engineers than any country on Earth, has a well-educated population and a complex economic structure covering one-sixth of the planet, then it has become a country in which the population is now well-suited to manage themselves.

      There are a host of reasons why the centralization, to the degree that it was maintained, increasingly was a fetter on further development. An educated population is not content to simply take orders from above, so alienation had not become overcome. One tragedy was that the Soviet Union had set up an immense academic infrastructure, and a steady stream of reports demonstrated how the system was slowing breaking down and needed updating, including less central control. That was ignored, for political and ideological reasons.

      The Soviet Union isn’t here anymore, and we owe it to history to grasp the reasons why. That was why I spent five years working on my book, and why, as I continued to go back in time to examine earlier roots, I wound up starting the book with the Paris Commune. The devil is indeed in the details, both in the historical records and for how a more lasting and democratic socialism can be constructed.

      I’ve got three celebrations of the 100th anniversary to attend in the next week or so; I hope you have similar events wherever you are.

  3. Al Markowitz says:

    Important article — and one similar to my own. I think it is important to emphasize the essential ideal of the democratic cooperative and to give present examples as well as the historic development of the struggle. Thanks for remembering and honoring the Bolshevik revolution!

  4. Prole Center says:

    Reblogged this on Proletarian Center for Research, Education and Culture and commented:
    There is much truth in what you say. I don’t want to make too many excuses for the Soviet Union’s failures, but I would like to point out that they didn’t operate in a vacuum. Many of their failures should be laid at their own doorstep, but it is undoubtedly true that they faced enormous opposition from the imperial powers. At the end of WW2 the US became the new leader of the capitalist imperialist world and unleashed hell on the USSR. They never knew a moment’s peace. The Soviet Union continued to operate under a siege mentality, and for good reason. Throughout the duration of the Cold War the Americans would embark on many provocations such as flying nuclear-armed B-52 bombers up to the borders of the Soviet Union and then turn back at the last minute. There were war games, economic boycotts, sanctions, propaganda, psychological warfare, literal sabotage of oil and gas pipelines to Europe, and encouragement and assistance of black markets to undermine the centrally planned economy. This is why the Soviets persisted in their bureaucratic and top-down control of the country. Once you understand the facts it’s easy to sympathize with their plight, and their heavy-handed response.

    Also, Yuri Andropov, who took over the leadership after Brezhnev’s death, did recognize the failures in the economy and many other issues and shortcomings. He had a plan to deal with it, but his life was cut short. Shortly thereafter, that traitorous scoundrel Gorbachev came to power and very quickly began to dismantle the socialist system. I really think that the CIA was able to thoroughly penetrate the Communist Party by that time and assassinated Andropov and put their guy, Gorbachev, in power. It may not ever be proved, but there is some circumstantial evidence to support it. See the links below:

    • Thanks for the reblog, Prole. I am in full agreement that the course of the Soviet Union can’t be understood at all without discussing the immense pressure from the capitalist world it was under at all times.

      I also agree with your assessment of Andropov; those who worked under him all note how willing he was to discuss freely problems that weren’t necessarily discussed in public. Most of those believed, had he lived, he would have brought forth significant, necessary reforms that were badly overdue.

      I’ll respectfully disagree with your assessment of Gorbachev. I believe he took office genuinely wanting to renew the Soviet system, and began with a course of action similar to what Andropov would have done. What happened is that as he began to implement further changes, those reforms that benefited management were put through and those that were to benefit workers were not. The confidence of workers eroded and the haphazard nature of the reforms caused perestroika to stagnate. Unfortunately, Gorbachev did not have a coherent, worked out plan and when what he was doing did not bring benefits, he threw in the towel and began to implement aspects of capitalism. Doing so caused a snipping of the dense web of threads that tied the system together, and thus it unraveled quickly.

      Andropov was very ill and didn’t have much time to live by the time he assumed the office of general secretary. Gorbachev had a reputation as a reformer for improvements he oversaw in agriculture and there was disappointment that Brezhnev’s sidekick (Chernenko) replaced Andropov rather than Gorbachev. As told in the memoirs of Ligachev, there was a firm backing for Gorbachev after Chernenko died among regional and provincial first secretaries. Once Gromyko threw his support behind Gorbachev, the rest of the Politburo lined up.

      There was a strong sense in the party that serious reforms were necessary and that Gorbachev was the person to carry them out. None of them wanted the Soviet Union to fall. It was Gromyko’s support that was crucial, and he is the last person there who could been a “CIA agent.” Yes, there was much Western interference and attempts to create problems, but I do believe that we can, and should, look for the reasons for the demise of the Soviet Union within its borders.

  5. dmorista says:

    Every attempt by popular revolutions to establish socialism / communism has been viciously attacked by the capitalist powers. I certainly have my differences with Noam Chomsky, but he hit it on the head when he commented that the U.S. ruling class is very afraid of the danger of a “good example”. Therefore they take massive and pervasive efforts, to make sure any attempt to break free from the capitalist yoke suffers horrific consequences. From the original attack on the Soviet Union, a complex event the first parts of which even predated the October Revolution in which the Americans participated in interventions in Arkhangelsk and Vladivostok: to the current day covert operations in Venezuela, the capitalist rulers always violently attack those who endeavor to free themselves from capitalist domination. Since 1918 they have constantly been busy with this murderous process, if we include the many internal attacks on unions and progressive organizations.

    It is not a coincidence that the only two societies that provided a sustained credible challenge to the U.S. and other major capitalist states, the U.S.S.R. and China, closed their societies to capitalist meddling. They determined their own paths to socioeconomic and political development, and whatever their faults and shortcomings, the dominant capitalist powers had no say in the decisions made.

    WW 2 saw the Soviets defeat Germany (arguably the most technologically and scientifically advanced society on Earth), albeit paying a terrible cost. The Soviets made much sounder decisions than did the supposedly brilliant German General staff and industrial leadership. Soviet weaponry, while less sophisticated than German, generally performed better, operated more reliably under Russian conditions, and was available in larger, often much larger, quantities. Even arch-reactionary Winston Churchill acknowledged that the Soviets tore the guts out of the German army. So the least developed country in Europe, Russia, transformed itself into a state capable of defeating the most developed country in the world, Germany, in just 20 years; an incredible achievement, but again paid for with immense human suffering.

    Now China, after lifting itself out of chaos and domination by foreigners and warlords, after the triumph of the Chinese Revolution in 1949 is mounting a credible challenge to the U.S. In a mere 30 years China, under the leadership of the Communist Party, transformed their society from a place where poor people were forced to sell their children and neighbors stole from each other; to a society that could become a leading capitalist state with the largest industrial plant in the world. Exactly what this all will result in is still a matter of conjecture; but it was undoubtedly one of the most astonishing examples of socioeconomic development, and cultural advancement in human history.

    None of this would have occurred without the October Revolution in Russia.

    • Very well said. Russia is certainly a country with an incredible history, fantastic advances and horrific human cost. The human suffering of capitalist development was immense, covering decades and even centuries. The Soviet Union telescoped all that into 20 years.

      Where would the world be now if the peoples of the Soviet Union had been able to rally to their defense, shunt aside the bureaucracy and implement workers’ control over industry? They would have had to struggle against capitalist encroachment for precisely the reasons you laid out but it would nonetheless have been an example for which world would have had to take notice.

  6. Jack Shalom says:

    Great article, Pete. Thanks.

  7. Joel Meyers says:

    The glaring oversight of all the commentators so far lies in missing your call for us to produce and consume less.

    This cannot even be applied in the United States and other centrally parasitic countries, in which the masses are bought off by a relatively high standard of living, soul-purchasing “benefits” largely based on sucking out the resources of the colonial world, and shortchanging its workers and petty-bourgeois producers.

    China’s standard of living and consumption in quality and quantity is only now beginning to improve based on its new productive capacities. Disillusionment with the socialist perspective in Russia and the Soviet Union in general, as well as its more problematic development in Western Europe, was largely based on shortages, scarcity and a low levels of consumption, as well as production, compared to the imperialist West, which could appropriate super-profits from extracting surplus from the entire fee world.

    The bulk of the world consists of the underfoot downtrodden, whose consumption level leaves many malnourished from pre-birth to relatively early death. This population desperately needs to consume more, and increased production is the only possible basis for such an improvement. Do the math.

    The only way to decrease aggregate production and consumption without increased austerity for everyone, would be if the population were reduced. China has made efforts with draconian economic penalties for families reproducing with more than a small number of children, with the goals achieved to a significant portion by forced or highly pressured abortions, most often of females due to lingering, ancient sexist traditional male preference, which in turn led to an overpreponderance of disproportionately mateless males.

    In most places on a world scale, population reduction would be even uglier, manipulated along racial and ethnic lines, almost certainly crossing into genocide, the “superior” races not wanting to be outbred. More Malthus than Marx.

    Very often, people would rather concentrate on academics and theory, as a way of avoiding discussing such unpleasant facts. But bringing academic theorizing back into focus, scientific socialism, as opposed to idealistic utopianism, was supposed to be materially based on abundance, as in from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs. Marx and Engels pointed out, and Trotsky echoed, that a world of shortages and scarcity would lead to long lines to secure necessities, and police and bureaucrats to manage the lines, while being in a position to cut themselves ahead.

    In fact, these are precisely the conditions that underlay and made inevitable the succession from abject slavery through feudalism and capitalism, through the bureaucratic limits of workers’ states in transition to socialism. “The same old crap,” as they summarized it, would remain or return.

  8. Joel Meyers says:

    Also troubling is the push for more decentralization in countries that are workers’ states, albeit deformed in various degrees, and countries that had gone through a workers’ state period, which still affects the structure of their economies.

    It seems that decentralization was the rubric under which dismantlement of the planned economy and predominant state ownership was sold to the masses of workers. It was the first step towards what was demagogically described as “market socialism”, since capitalism was the C-word, retaining its negative ring as a turn-off.

    When emergency conditions demanded it to recover from “war communism” right after the calamities of World War I and the Soviet Union’s Civil War phase, the Bolsheviks implemented decentralization, that is, the New Economic Program (NEP). One of the early differences between Stalin and Trotsky was that Trotsky wanted to phase it out starting it out and begin gradually to collectivize and redistribute land in favor of the poor and landless, and begin to curb the “NEPmen” who grew prosperous by taking corrupt advantage, from a socialist perspective, and were exacerbating exploitation. Stalin teamed up with Bukharin in efforts to prolong and deepen the NEP.

    They prevailed, and gave more time for the NEPmen to grow into a more powerful challenge to socialism, through brewing civil war in the countryside. This provoked a crackdown and collectivization using catastrophically harsh measures in the 1930s necessitated by the increased strength and counterrevolutionary threat of the NEPmen, now renamed “Kulaks”. Stalin actually started out as the “softie” on the proto-bourgeoisie.

    In general, decentralized local control of workplaces is transitory and transitional, either from outright capitalist ownership to integration into the state capitalism of a workers’ state, but also in a reverse direction, towards dismantlement of national workers’ control. If central planning is disrupted, market forces would fill the vacuum, and govern the choices that workers, in control of decentralized fragments.

    Each fragment would lack the overview necessary to subordinate disparate incentives to national and international bloc needs, and to minimize national unemployment and overall supply-demand matching. This is compounded if the workers’ states themselves are encircled by more powerful capitalist/imperialist forces conniving for destruction in a cold war, including economic warfare.

    Decentralization allows for stratified corruption, division and conquest, and opens the door to all kinds of interference.

    Decentralization also leads to a weakening of a national referee function of nationwide government, so that competition between the worker-controlled fragments intensifies, becomes a deregulatory factor, and breaks up the solidarity of working class. Each fragment has a tendency to function as a bourgeois enterprise, even if controlled by the workers.

    Also, as the experience in Yugoslavian decentralization exemplifies, even the workers’ control within the fragments is not always idyllic. Often local gangsters are able to dominate the workforce as a whole, rigging the hierarchy even if on paper a very democratic structure is in place. This leads to institutionalized robbery of the workers not part of or sucking up to the gangsters.
    If anyone thinks it would be a simple matter for a nice majority to throw the gangsters off their backs in the workers’ own instiutions, try driving the mafia-types out of unions that they have taken over here in the capitalist USA. Where is Jimmy Hoffa buried?

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