1914-23: Ten years that shook the world

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The decade from 1914 to 1923 was one of the most intense periods in the history of mankind. This short lapse of time saw the terrible slaughter of the First World War, which ended thirty years of prosperity and uninterrupted progress for the capitalist economy and society as a whole. In the face of this hecatomb, the international proletariat rose up with, at its head, the Russian workers in 1917, and it was not until 1923 that echoes of this revolutionary wave began to fade, crushed by the bourgeois reaction. These ten years saw the world war, which opened up the period of capitalist decadence, the revolution in Russia and revolutionary attempts worldwide and, finally, the start of the barbarous bourgeois counter-revolution. Capitalist decadence, world war, revolution and counter-revolution marked the economic, social, cultural and psychological life of humanity for nearly a century, and they all took place within a single decade.

It is vital for the present generation to know and understand this decade, to think about what it represents and learn lessons from it. It is vital because there is a huge ignorance of its real meaning today, owing to the lies with which the dominant ideology has tried to obscure it, as well as the attitude it promotes, consciously or unconsciously, of living in the present moment and forgetting both the past and any perspective for the future.[1]

This fixation on the immediate and circumstantial, this "living in the here and now" without reflecting on or understanding its roots, without framing it in a future perspective, makes it very difficult to understand the real nature of these ten incredible years, and so by making a critical study of them we should be able to help clarify  the  current situation.

Today it's hard to imagine the huge shock that people must have experienced at the start of the First World War, with the qualitative leap into barbarism that it represented.[2] Today, after nearly a century of imperialist wars with their share of terror, destruction and above all the worst ideological and psychological brutality, it all seems to be "the most natural thing in the world", and it's as if we are not disturbed or angered by it or want to revolt against it. But this was not at all the attitude of people living through these events; they were profoundly shaken by the savagery of the war, which was unlike anything that had gone before.

It's even less understood that this terrible slaughter was brought to an abrupt end with the widespread revolt of the international proletariat, with its Russian brothers at the head.[3]  Little is known of the enormous sympathy that the Russian revolution aroused among the exploited of the world.[4] There is a heavy blanket of silence and misinformation surrounding the many episodes of solidarity with the Russian workers, and the many attempts to follow their lead and extend the revolution internationally. The atrocities committed by the various democratic governments, particularly by the German government, in order to crush the revolutionary movement of the masses are again little known to most people. The worst deformation of all concerns the October revolution of 1917. This is commonly presented as a Russian phenomenon, totally isolated from the historic context we have set out above, and on this basis it has given free rein to the worst lies and most absurd speculation: that it was the work - brilliant according to the Stalinists, diabolical according to its detractors - of Lenin and the Bolsheviks; that it was a bourgeois revolution in response to tsarist backwardness; that in this country the socialist revolution was impossible, and only the Bolsheviks' fanatical determination led it in the direction  where it could only end up as it did.

From this premise we are led to see in the international repercussions of the revolution of October 1917 a model to be exported to other countries; this is the deformation most commonly used by Stalinism. This notion of a "model" is doubly wrong and pernicious. On the one hand, the Russian revolution is seen as a national phenomenon and, on the other, it is conceived as a "social experiment" that can be carried out at will by any group that is sufficiently motivated and experienced.

This approach grossly distorts the reality of this historic period. The Russian revolution was not a laboratory experiment carried out within the four walls of its immense territory. It was an active and living part of a worldwide proletarian response provoked by capitalism's entry into the war and the terrible suffering that it caused. The Bolsheviks did not have the least intention of imposing a fanatical model, with the Russian people as the guinea pigs. A resolution adopted by the party in April 1917 stated that: "...‘the objective conditions of the socialist revolution, which were undoubtedly present before the war in the most advanced countries, have ripened further and continue to ripen further in consequence of the war with extreme rapidity'; that ‘the Russian revolution is only the first stage in the first of the proletarian revolutions inevitably resulting from the war'; and that common action by the workers of different countries was the only way to guarantee ‘the most regular development and the surest success of the world socialist revolution'."[5]

It is important to understand that bourgeois history underestimates - when it does not distort it completely - the revolutionary wave of 1917-23. And Stalinism equally joins in with this distortion. For example at the enlarged meeting of Executive Committee of the Comintern in 1925, that is to say at the beginning of Stalinisation, the German revolution was described as a "bourgeois revolution", throwing into the dustbin everything the Bolsheviks had defended from 1917 to 1923.[6]

This "opinion", which is broadcast widely today as much by historians as by politicians about this period, wasn't at all shared by their counterparts back then. Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, said in 1919: "The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent but also of anger and revolt amongst the workmen against conditions following the war. The 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."[7]

The Russian revolution can only be understood as part of a world revolutionary attempt by the whole international proletariat, but this requires us to take into consideration the historical epoch that produced it, and recognise the deeper meaning of the outbreak of the First World War; that is to say, as the start of capitalism's historic decline, its decadent phase. Otherwise, the foundation of a real understanding is lost, and it has no meaning. And the world war and all subsequent events are meaningless since they appear either as exceptional events that have no consequences, or as the result of an unfortunate situation that is now past, so that events today have no connection with what happened then.

Our articles are written to debunk these conceptions. They are based on the historical and global perspective characteristic of marxism. We believe we can provide a coherent explanation of this historical period, an explanation that will provide a perspective and offer material to stimulate reflection about the current situation and point the way ahead for humanity to free itself from the yoke of capitalism. Otherwise, the situation both then and now is robbed of meaning and perspective, and the activities of all those who want to contribute to a world revolution are condemned to the most basic empiricism and to wearing themselves out by shooting in the dark.

The proposed theme of these articles, in continuity with the many contributions we have already made, is an attempt to reconstruct this period using the testimonies and the stories of the protagonists themselves.[8]

We have devoted many pages to the revolutions in Russia and in Germany.[9] Therefore, we are publishing this work on lesser-known experiences in various countries with the aim of giving a global perspective. Studying this period a little, one is astonished by the number of struggles that took place, by the magnitude of the echo from the revolution of 1917.[10] We consider the scope of this series of articles as open and therefore as an invitation to debate, and we welcome any contributions from comrades and from revolutionary groups.



[1]. An historian who is reasonably serious and penetrating in many ways, Eric Hobsbawm, recognises in his history of the 20th Century that "The destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one's contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late Twentieth Century. Most young men and women at the century's end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any relation to the public past of the times they live in" (The Age of Extremes, Abacus History Greats, page 3).

[2]. We find evidence of the way in which the world war upset its contemporaries in Sigmund Freud's article "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death" in 1915, in which he points out the following: "In the confusion of wartime in which we are caught up, relying as we must on one-sided information, standing too close to the great changes that have already taken place or are beginning to, and without a glimmering of the future that is being shaped, we ourselves are at a loss as to the significance of the impressions which bear down upon us and as to the value of the judgements which we form. We cannot but feel that no event has ever destroyed so much that is precious in the common possessions of humanity, confused so many of the clearest intelligences, or so thoroughly debased what is highest. Science herself has lost her passionless impartiality; her deeply embittered servants seek for weapons from her with which to contribute towards the struggle with the enemy. Anthropologists feel driven to declare that enemy inferior and degenerate, psychiatrists issue a diagnosis of his disease of mind or spirit." (https://www.panarchy.org/freud/war.1915.html).

[3]. The history books make a study of the military evolution of the war and, when they arrive at 1917 and 1918, suddenly insert the Russian revolution and the insurrectionary movement in Germany in 1918, as if these were events from another planet. We can see, for example, the article on the First World War from Wikipedia, which has the reputation as an alternative encyclopaedia.

[4]. Today the vast majority of anarchist ideologues denigrate the 1917 revolution and shower the Bolsheviks with the worst insults. However, this was not the case in 1917-21. In "The CNT faced with war and revolution" (International Review n° 129) we show how many Spanish anarchists - while maintaining their own criteria and with a critical spirit - supported the Russian revolution enthusiastically and, in an editorial in Solidaritad, the CNT paper, we read: "The Russians are showing us the way to go. The Russian people are winning: we are learning from their actions in order to win in our turn, in taking by force what they refuse to give us". Elsewhere Manuel Bonacasa, well renowned anarchist, says the following in his memoirs: "Who in Spain - as an anarchist - would scorn to call himself a Bolshevik?" Emma Goldman, an American anarchist, points out in her book Living my Life: "The American press, never able to see beneath the surface, denounced the October upheaval as German propaganda, and its protagonists, Lenin, Trotsky and their co-workers, as the Kaiser's hirelings. For months the scribes fabricated fantastic inventions about Bolshevik Russia. Their ignorance of the forces that led up to the October Revolution was as appalling as their puerile attempts to interpret the movement headed by Lenin. Hardly a single newspaper evidenced the least understanding of Bolshevism as a social conception entertained by men of brilliant minds, with the zeal and courage of martyrs. ... It was the more urgent for the anarchists and other real revolutionists to take up cudgels for the vilified men and their part in hastening events in Russia." (Living my life, Penguin Classics, page 362). [The French version of this article refers to "L'épopée d'une anarchiste" a translation/adaptation by Cathy Bernheim and Annette Levy-Willard who are very conscious of their treason when they write: "If she met us today, she would probably regard us with distrust for our ‘adaptation' ... Such would without doubt have been her appreciation of our work. But the only thing that Emma Goldman, fanatic for liberty, could not reproach us for is having made a free adaptation of her memoirs." Proof of this "free treason" is found in the fact that after the first sentence this passage only appears in a watered down version in the book by these ladies, and had to be translated from the original by our comrades.]

[5]. Quoted by E.H. Carr in The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-23: History of Soviet Russia, Norton edition, pages 83-4.

[6]. In The International Workers' Movement volume 4, published by Progress in Moscow, there is a note that: "at the start of the Second World War, as a result of broad discussions in Marxist historiography, it was decided that the revolutions of 1918-19 in countries of central Europe were completely bourgeois democratic (or national democratic) revolutions", (page 277 of the Spanish edition).

[7]. E.H Carr, op cit, volume 3, page 128.

[8]. In the preface to the book already quoted from, Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution, the author reflects on the correct method for analysing historical facts. Criticising the supposedly "neutral and objective" approach advocated by the French historian who asserts that "a historian must climb the ramparts of the threatened and, from there regard the besiegers as the besieged", Trotsky replies that: "The serious and critical reader will not want a treacherous impartiality, which offers him a cup of conciliation with a well-settled poison of reactionary hate at the bottom, but a scientific conscientiousness which for its sympathies and antipathies - open and undisguised - seeks support in an honest study of the facts, a determination of their real connections, an exposure of the casual laws of their movement. That is the only possible historic objectivism, and moreover it is amply sufficient, for it is verified and attested not by the good intentions of the historian, for which only he himself can vouch, but by the natural laws revealed by him of the historic process itself."

[9]. For a knowledge of the Russian Revolution, there are two books that are classics in the workers' movement: Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution and the famous book by John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World.

[10]. The book by E.H. Carr, mentioned above, quotes another statement by Lloyd George in 1919: "If military action was taken against the Bolsheviks, then England would become Bolshevik and there would be a soviet in London", and to this the author adds: "Lloyd George was speaking as usual to create a stir but his shrewd mind had correctly diagnosed the symptoms ".

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