Russia 1917 and the revolutionary memory of the working class

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For all those who still consider that mankind’s last best hope is the revolutionary overthrow of world capitalism, it is impossible to greet the beginning of the year 2017 without recalling that it is the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution. And we also know that all those who insist that there is no alternative to the present social system will recall it in their own way.

Many of them will ignore it of course, or downplay its significance by telling us that this is just ancient history. Everything has changed since then – and what is the point of talking about a working class revolution when the working class no longer exists, or has been so degraded that the term ‘working class revolution’ can even be assimilated to protest votes in favour of Brexit or Trump in old industrial centres decimated by globalisation?

Or if the upheaval which shook the world in 1917 is brought to mind, in the majority of cases it is painted as a kind of horror story, but one with a very definite ‘moral’: behold, this is what happens when you challenge the present system, if you fall for the delusion that a higher form of social life is possible. You get something much worse. You get terror, Gulags, the omnipresent totalitarian state. It began with Lenin and his fanatical band of Bolsheviks whose coup d’Etat in October 1917 killed off Russia’s fledgling democracy, and it ended up with Stalin, with the whole of society transformed into a forced labour camp. And then it all collapsed, which demonstrated once and for all that it is impossible to organise modern society other than by the methods of capitalism.

We are under no illusion that, in 2017, explaining what the Russian revolution really meant is going to be easy. This is a period of extreme difficulty for the working class and its small revolutionary minorities, a period which is dominated by feelings of hopelessness and loss of any perspective for the future, by the sinister growth of nationalism and racism which serves to divide the working class against itself, by the hate-filled demagogy of the populists on the right, and on the left by clamorous appeals to defend ‘democracy’ against this new authoritarianism.

But this is also a moment for us to recall the work of our political ancestors, the left communist fractions who survived the terrible defeats of the revolutionary movements sparked off by the events in Russia 1917 and tried to make sense of the resulting degeneration and demise of the very communist parties which had been formed to lead the way to revolution. Resisting both the open terror of the counter-revolution in its Stalinist and fascist forms, and the more veiled deceptions of democracy, the most lucid left communist currents, such as those grouped around the reviews Bilan in the 1930s and Internationalisme in the 40s, began the enormous task of drawing the ‘balance sheet’ of the revolution. First and foremost, against all its denigrators, they reaffirmed what had been essential and positive about the Russian revolution. In particular, they insisted

  • That the “Russian” revolution only had a meaning as the first victory of the world revolution, and that its only hope had been the extension of proletarian power to the rest of the globe;

  • That it had confirmed the capacity of the working class to dismantle the bourgeois state and create new organs of political power (most notably the soviets or councils of workers’ delegates);

  • That it demonstrated the necessity for a revolutionary political organisation defending the principles of internationalism and working class autonomy.

At the same time, the revolutionaries of the 1930s and 40s also began the painful analysis of the costly errors made by the Bolsheviks in the teeth of an unprecedented situation for any workers’ party, in particular:

  • The growing tendency for the party to substitute itself for the soviets, and the fusion of the party with the post-October state, which undermined not only the power of the soviets but also the capacity of the party to defend the class interests of the workers, even in opposition to the new state;
  • The recourse to the ‘Red Terror’ in response to the White Terror of the counter-revolution – a process which led to the Bolsheviks implicating themselves in the suppression of proletarian movements and organisations

  • The tendency to see state capitalism as a transitional stage towards socialism, and even as being identical with it.

The ICC, from its inception, has attempted to carry on with this work of drawing the lessons of the Russian revolution and the international revolutionary wave of 1917-23. We have over the years developed quite a library of articles and pamphlets dealing with this absolutely vital era in the history of our class. In the coming year, and beyond, we will be making sure that these texts are more accessible to our readers, by compiling an updated dossier of our most important articles on the Russian revolution and the international revolutionary wave. Each month or so we will headline articles which most directly correspond either to the chronological development of the revolutionary process or which contain responses to the most important questions posed by the attacks of bourgeois propaganda or by discussions in and around the proletarian political milieu. So this month we will be ‘promoting’ to the front page of our website an article on the February revolution first written in 1997. It will be followed by articles on Lenin’s April Theses, the July days, the October insurrection, and so on; and we intend to keep this process going over a long period, precisely because the drama of the revolution and counter-revolution lasted for a number of years and was by no means limited to Russia, but had its echoes all across the globe, from Berlin to Shanghai, from Turin to Patagonia, and from the Clydeside to Seattle.

At the same time, we will be seeking to add to this collection with new articles which deal with issues that we have not yet examined in depth (such as the onslaught against the revolution by the ruling class at the time, the problem of ‘Red Terror’, and so on); articles which respond to the current campaigns of capitalism aimed against the revolutionary memory of the working class; and articles which will look at the conditions for the proletarian revolution today – at what they have in common with the time of the Russian revolution, but also and above all at what significant changes have intervened over the past 100 years.

The aim of this publishing venture is not simply to “celebrate” or “commemorate” long-past historical events. It is to defend the view that the proletarian revolution is even more of a necessity today than it was in 1917. Faced with the horrors of the first imperialist world war, the revolutionaries of the time concluded that capitalism had entered its epoch of decline, posing humanity with the alternative between socialism and barbarism; and the even greater horrors – symbolised in place-names like Auschwitz and Hiroshima - that followed the defeat of the first attempts to make the socialist revolution starkly confirmed their diagnosis. A century later, capitalism’s continued existence poses a mortal threat to the very survival of humanity.

Writing from her prison cell in 1918, and on the eve of the revolution in Germany, Rosa Luxemburg expressed her fundamental solidarity with the Russian revolution and the Bolshevik party, despite all her very serious criticisms of the errors of the Bolsheviks, in particular the policy of the Red Terror. Her words are as relevant to our own future as they were to the future she herself confronted:

What is in order is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, the kernel from the accidental excrescencies in the politics of the Bolsheviks. In the present period, when we face decisive final struggles in all the world, the most important problem of socialism was and is the burning question of our time. It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: “I have dared!”

This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realization of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labour in the entire world. In Russia, the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to ‘Bolshevism’.


History of the workers' movement: 


1917 - 2017