October 1917: The working masses take charge of their destiny

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In our discussions, especially with young people, we often hear variations of the following: "It's true that things are very bad, there's more and more poverty and war, our conditions are getting worse, that the future of the planet is under threat. Something has to be done, but what? A revolution? That's utopian, it's impossible".

That's the big difference between May 68 and now. In 1968, the idea of revolution was all around even though the economic crisis had only just begun to bite. Today, it's much more evident that capitalism is bankrupt but there is much more scepticism about the possibility of changing the world. Words like "communism" and "class struggle" sound like the dream of another age. Even to talk about the working class and the bourgeoisie seems out of date.

But history does provide an answer to these doubts. 90 years ago, the working class supplied the proof that it is possible to change the world. The revolution of October 1917 in Russia, to this day the greatest action the exploited masses have ever undertaken, showed that the revolution was not only necessary but also possible.

The strength of October 1917: The development of consciousness...

The ruling class continues to spew out a flood of lies on this subject. Works like The end of an illusion or The Black Book of Communism do little more than repeat the propaganda that was already circulating at the time: the revolution was no more than a "putsch" by the Bolsheviks; Lenin was an agent of German imperialism, etc. The bourgeoisie can only see workers' revolutions as acts of collective madness; a lapse into chaos doomed to end horribly.[1] Bourgeois ideology cannot admit that the exploited can act for their own interests. The collective and conscious action of the working majority is a notion that bourgeois thought rejects as an unnatural utopia.

However, whatever our exploiters might think, the reality is that in 1917 the working class was able to rise up collectively and consciously against this inhuman system. It showed that the workers are not dumb beasts, good only for working and obeying. On the contrary, these revolutionary events revealed the enormous and often unsuspected capacities of the proletariat, freeing a torrent of creative energy and a prodigious dynamic of collective mental transformation. John Reed summed up the intense ebullience of proletarian life during the year 1917: "All Russia was learning to read, and reading - politics, economics, history - because the people wanted to know.... The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the Revolution into a frenzy of expression. From Smolny Institute alone, the first six months, tons, car-loads, train-loads of literature, saturating the land... Then the Talk... Meetings in the trenches at the front, in village squares, factories...What a marvellous sight to see: Putilovsky Zavod (the Putilov factory) pour out in its forty thousand to listen to Social Democrats, Socialist Revolutionaries, Anarchists, anybody, whatever they had to say, as long as they would talk! For months in Petrograd, and all over Russia, every street-corner was a public tribune. In railway carriages, street-cars, always the spurting up of impromptu debate, everywhere.... At every meeting, attempts to limit the time of speakers voted down, and every man free to express the thought that was in him".[2]

Bourgeois democracy talks a lot about "freedom of expression" when experience tells us that for the ruling class it's all manipulation, theatre, brainwashing. Real freedom of expression is conquered by the working masses in their revolutionary action.

"In every factory, in each guild, in each company, in each tavern, in the military hospital, at the transfer station, even in the depopulated villages, the molecular work of revolutionary thought was in progress. Everywhere were to be found the interpreters of events, chiefly from among the workers, from whom one inquired, ‘what's the news?' and from whom one awaited the needed words...Elements of experience, criticism, initiative, self-sacrifice, seeped down through the mass and created, invisibly to a superficial glance but no less decisively, an inner mechanics of the revolutionary movement as a conscious process".[3]

This capacity of the working class to enter into struggle collectively and consciously was no sudden miracle; it was the fruit of numerous struggles and of a long process of subterranean reflection. Marx often compared the working class to an old mole slowly burrowing away under the earth only to emerge suddenly and unexpectedly into the clear light of day. Through the insurrection of October 1917 we saw the imprint of the experiences of the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian revolution of 1905, of the political battles fought by the Communist League, the First and Second Internationals, the Zimmerwald, the German Spartacists and the Bolshevik party in Russia. The Russian revolution was certainly a response to the war, to hunger and the barbarism of dying Tsarism, but it was also and above all a conscious response, guided by the historic and worldwide continuity of the proletarian movement. Concretely, the Russian workers, prior to the victorious insurrection, had lived through the great struggles of 1898, 1902, the 1905 revolution and the battles of 1912-14:

"It was necessary to reckon not on a vague mass, but with the mass of the workers of Petrograd and the workers of Russia in general who had lived through the experience of the 1905 revolution, the insurrection in Moscow in the December of that year; and it was necessary that, within that mass, there were workers who had reflected on the experience of 1905, who had assimilated the perspective of the revolution, who had focused dozens of times on the question of the army".[4]

Thus October 1917 was the culminating point of a long process in the development of consciousness, culminating, on the eve of the insurrection, in a profoundly fraternal atmosphere in the workers' ranks. This ambience is perceptible and almost palpable in these lines from Trotsky: "The masses felt a need to stand close together. Each wanted to test himself through others, and all tensely and attentively kept observing how one and the same thought would develop in their various minds with its different shades and features.... Those months of feverish political life had created innumerable cadres in the lower ranks, had educated hundreds and thousands of rough diamonds...The mass would no longer endure in its midst the wavering, the dubious, the neutral. It was striving to get hold of everybody, to attract, to convince, to conquer. The factories joined with the regiments in sending delegates to the front. The trenches got into connection with the workers and peasants near by in the rear. In the towns along the front there was an endless series of meetings, conferences, consultations in which the soldiers and sailors would bring their activity into accord with that of the workers and peasants."[5]

Thanks to this ferment of debate, the workers were able to win over the soldiers and the peasants to their cause. The 1917 revolution expressed the very being of the proletariat, a class which is both exploited and revolutionary and which can only free itself if it acts in a conscious and collective manner. The revolutionary struggle of the proletariat is the only hope for the liberation of all the exploited and oppressed masses. Bourgeois politics is always organised to benefit a minority in society. Proletarian politics, on the other hand, don't aim to satisfy a particular interest but the interests of humanity as a whole: "the exploited and oppressed class (the proletariat) cannot liberate itself from the class which exploits and oppresses it (the bourgeoisie) without at the same time liberating, once and for all, the whole of society from exploitation, oppression and the class struggle."[6]

...and of self-organisation

This huge outpouring of discussion, this thirst for collective reflection and action was materialised very concretely in the soviets (workers' councils), which allowed the workers to organise themselves and fight as a united class.

Following the call of the Petrograd soviet, the day of 22 October sealed the insurrection. Meetings and assemblies were held in all neighbourhoods and factories, and they were massively in agreement: "Down with Kerensky!",[7] "All power to the Soviets!" It was not just the Bolsheviks, but the whole proletariat of Petrograd which decided on and carried out the insurrection. It was a gigantic action in which industrial workers, white-collar workers, soldiers, women, children, even many Cossacks, participated openly.

"The insurrection was so to speak organised for a fixed date: 25 October. It was not fixed by a secret meeting, but openly and publicly, and the triumphant revolution took place precisely on 25 October (6 November in the Russian calendar) as had been foreseen in advance. Universal history has seen a great number of revolts and revolutions, but we would look in vain for another insurrection by an oppressed class which took place on a set date and publicly and which was carried out victoriously on the day announced. In this sense the November revolution was unique and incomparable".[8]

Throughout Russia, far beyond Petrograd, a huge number of soviets called for the seizure of power or took it themselves, marking the victory of the insurrection. The Bolshevik party knew very well that the revolution could not be carried out just by the party or by the Petrograd workers alone; it was a task for the whole proletariat. The events proved that Lenin and Trotsky were right to have said that the soviets, as soon as they appeared in the mass strikes of 1905, were "the finally discovered form of the dictatorship of the proletariat". In 1917, this unitary organisation of the fighting proletariat, based on the generalisation of sovereign assemblies and their centralisation through elected and revocable delegates, played an essential political role in the seizure of power, whereas the trade unions didn't play any role at all.

Alongside the soviets, another form of working class organisation played a fundamental, vital role in the victory of the insurrection: the Bolshevik party. While the soviets enabled the whole working class to struggle collectively, the party, representing the most determined and conscious fraction of the class, had the role of participating actively in the movement, of facilitating the widest and deepest possible development of consciousness in the class, and of formulating proposals that could provide a clear orientation for the activity of the class. The masses took power through the soviets, but the class party was no less indispensable. In July 1917, the intervention of the party was decisive in avoiding a definitive defeat for the whole movement.[9] In October 1917, it was again the party which guided the class towards the taking of power. On the other hand, the October revolution showed very clearly that the party must not and cannot replace the soviets: while the party has to play the role of political leadership both in the struggle for power and in the dictatorship of the proletariat, its task is not to take power itself. Proletarian political power cannot remain in the hands of a minority, however conscious and devoted it might be, but has to be exerted by the whole class through the only organism that can represent it as a whole: the soviets. At this level the Russian revolution was a painful experience since it ended up with the party little by little smothering the life of the workers' councils. But on this question, neither Lenin and the other Bolsheviks, nor the Spartacists in Germany were completely clear in 1917, nor could they have been. We must not forget that October 1917 was the proletariat's first experience of a successful insurrection on the scale of an entire country.

The international revolution is not the past but the future of the class struggle

"The Russian revolution is only one of the contingents of the international socialist army, on the action of which the success and triumph of our revolution depends. This is a fact which none of us lose sight of...Aware of the isolation of its revolution, the Russian proletariat clearly realises that an essential condition and prime requisite for its victory is the united action of the workers of the whole world...".[10]

For the Bolsheviks it was clear that the Russian revolution was only the first act of the international revolution. The insurrection of October 1917 was in fact the most advanced outpost of a worldwide revolutionary wave, of a series of titanic struggles in which the proletariat came close to overthrowing capitalism. In 1917, it overturned bourgeois power in Russia. Between 1918 and 1923, it launched a series of battles in the central country of Europe, Germany. The revolutionary wave spread rapidly throughout the globe. Wherever a developed working class existed, the proletariat rose up against its exploiters: from Italy to Canada, from Hungary to China.

This proletarian upsurge was no accident. The feeling of belonging to the same class and being part of the same struggle corresponds to the very being of the proletariat. Whatever the country, the working class is subjected to the same ruling class and the same system of exploitation. This exploited class forms a chain across the continents, and each victory and defeat has profound implications for the whole chain. This is why since its origins communist theory has placed proletarian internationalism, the solidarity of all workers across the world, at the top of its principles: "Workers of all countries, unite" was the slogan of the Communist Manifesto written by Marx and Engels. This same Manifesto affirmed clearly that "the workers have no country". The proletarian revolution, which alone can put an end to capitalist exploitation and all forms of exploitation of man by man, can only take place on a world scale. This was already clearly expressed in Engels' Principles of Communism, written in 1847: "The communist revolution will not merely be a national phenomenon but must take place simultaneously in all civilised countries... It will have a powerful impact on the other countries of the world, and will radically alter the course of development which they have followed up to now, while greatly stepping up its pace...It is a universal revolution and will, accordingly, have a universal range".

The international dimension of the revolutionary wave of the years 1917-1923 proved that proletarian internationalism was not just a fine ideal and a great abstract principle but a real and tangible reality. In the face of the bloody nationalism of the bourgeoisie and the barbarism of the First World War, the working class responded with its international solidarity. "There is no socialism outside the international solidarity of the proletariat" - this was the lucid message of the leaflets circulating in the factories of Germany during the war, based on the words of Rosa Luxemburg in her pamphlet The crisis of German social democracy. The victory of the October insurrection, then the threat of the revolution spreading to Germany, forced the bourgeoisie to put an end to the first world butchery. The ruling class was obliged to set aside the imperialist antagonisms that had torn it apart for four years in order to mount a united front in the face of the revolutionary wave.

The revolutionary wave of the last century was the highest point so far reached by humanity. Against nationalism and war, against the exploitation and misery of the capitalist world, the proletariat was able to open up another perspective, that of internationalism and the solidarity of all the oppressed masses. The wave that began in October 1917 was proof of the power of the working class. For the first time, an exploited class had the courage and the capacity to take power from the hands of the exploiters and to launch the world proletarian revolution. Even though the revolution would soon be defeated, in Berlin, in Budapest, in Turin, even if the Russian and world proletariat had to pay a terrible price for this defeat (the horrors of the Stalinist counter-revolution, a second world war and all the barbarism we have seen since), the bourgeoisie has still not been able to completely erase these exalted events and their lessons from the memory of the working class. The scale of the falsifications of the bourgeoisie about October 1917 is proportionate to the fear that it provoked in its ranks. The memory of October 1917 is there to remind the proletariat that the destiny of humanity is in its hands and that it is capable of accomplishing this grandiose task. More than ever, the international revolution is the future of the class struggle!

Pascale, September 2007.

 



[1]. The cartoon film Anastasia by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, which presents the Russian revolution as a coup by Rasputin, as a kind of demonic curse on the Russian people, is a gross caricature of this approach but still very revealing.

 

[2].Ten days that shook the world, Chapter 1.

 

[3]3. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. 1, "Who led the February insurrection?"

 

[4]. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. 1, "The paradox of the February revolution".

 

[5]. History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. 3, "Withdrawal from the pre-parliament and struggle for the Soviet Congress".

 

[6]. Engels, 1883 preface to the Communist Manifesto.

 

[7]. The head of the provisional government formed after the February revolution.

 

[8]. Trotsky The November Revolution, 1919.

 

[9]. See "Russia, July 1917: Facing the manoeuvres of the bourgeoisie, the vital role of the Bolshevik party" on our website.

 

[10]. Lenin, "Report delivered at a Moscow Gubernia Conference of Factory Committees, 23 July 1918", Collected Works, Vol. 27.