Nov. 7 marked the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, also known as the Bolshevik or October Revolution. The Russian Revolution was probably the most decisive and controversial event of the 20th century. Opponents of the revolution hold it responsible for crimes of the Stalin era, which led to the death of millions, and for the bureaucratic dictatorship which stifled Soviet society for seven decades. Defenders of the revolution acknowledge these terrible aftermaths but claim they were not inevitable consequences of the Bolshevik uprising, which could have had very different outcomes (Stephen F. Cohen, “Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives,” 2011). Moreover, defenders argue that the October Revolution of 1917 also has positive legacies that are enormously relevant for the contemporary world.
Human society on planet Earth faces three overriding problems, largely induced by global capitalism, that endanger its survival. The first problem is deep and growing social inequality. The second is the looming threat of nuclear warfare. The third problem is environmental degradation. None of these formidable problems will yield to gradual piecemeal solutions. They all require rapid, comprehensive, rational change. Moreover, change initiative will not come from privileged classes. They benefit from current economic arrangements even as the overall social system approaches disaster.
This is where the Russian Revolution becomes germane. The October Revolution demonstrated that necessary change was possible even in an autocratic society (czarist Russia) embarked upon a calamitous course (World War I). The Revolution showed that subordinate, seemingly passive classes (workers, soldiers and peasants) can transmute into a cohesive dynamic force empowering radical social renovation. The Russian Revolution inspired liberation movements among subaltern populations all over the world. It directly or indirectly instigated revolutions in China, Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Cuba, Korea, Chile, Venezuela and South Africa. It was also a potent stimulant to anti-racist movements within the United States and elsewhere. Thus the Russian Revolution remains an enduring monument to the possibility of progressive change even under dire circumstances.
The Russian Revolution also celebrates the role of rationality in reconstructing society. It was the first revolution based upon a profound theory of social change (historical materialism) plus a strategic map for reorganizing social relations (workers democracy with economic planning). The preparation and early history of the Revolution showed that rigid ideology and utopian objectives (i.e. types of political irrationality) were serious impediments to viable social reconstruction. This required rational analysis of current social forces, tactical flexibility, identifying mistakes and willingness to change course. The experience of the Russian Revolution inspired one astute observer to redefine Marxism as “a philosophical position the fundamental principle of which is continuous, systematic, and comprehensive confrontation of reality with reason” (Paul Baran, “The Longer View,” 1969).
Leon Trotsky (a principal leader of the Revolution) says that “the most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events.” The Russian Revolution was both a spontaneous mass movement and a conspiracy by a revolutionary party. Trotsky endorses this combination, claiming that “the higher the political level of a revolutionary movement and the more serious its leadership, the greater will be the place occupied by conspiracy (i.e. planning) in a popular insurrection.” In particular, Trotsky hails Lenin’s unique capacity to combine comprehension of insurgent-class consciousness with theoretically astute leadership: “(Lenin) did not intend to lose himself in the masses or to act behind their backs” (Leon Trotsky, “The History of the Russian Revolution,” 1932).
The Bolshevik revolutionaries of 1917 knew they could not establish socialism in an impoverished, illiterate and backward country like Russia. What they did hope to accomplish was (a) giving power to the Russian working class through the institution of soviets (workers councils) and (b) triggering socialist revolutions in advanced capitalist countries like Germany, France and the United States. Neither of these things actually happened. However, the Russian Revolution successfully established that the capitalist system is vulnerable. Threatened as we are by capitalist-induced inequality, warfare and eco-catastrophe, this is a precious political lesson indeed.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.