General Secretary of the Young Communist League, Johnnie Hunter, discusses the reasons behind the October Revolution in Russia, its legacy and, most importantly, its significance today. This article originally appeared in Challenge in 2018.
As communists it seems obvious, maybe even trite, when we say the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917 was the single most important event of the 20th Century. For the peoples of the Soviet Union it was the legendary opening chapter which began a glorious revolutionary tradition. For humankind it changed the course of history.
The opening salvo of the Aurora which signalled the storming of the Winter Palace also marked the death knell of world of imperialism and the beginning of the epoch of international proletarian revolution. Not since the Paris Commune of 1871, ultimately crushed and drowned in blood, had working people seized state power. As the spring must follow the winter, the triumph of the workers against the ruling class is historically inevitable. But the fact that backwards Tsarist Russia was to be the cradle of the revolution reflected its position, in Lenin’s words, as the weak link in the chain of global imperialism.
In 1917 the ruling class in Russia faced a precarious position. Even before the outbreak of World War One the country faced economic turmoil and was wracked by class conflict. In the cities, workers and new migrants from the countryside crowded into the slums surrounding the massive factories and mills. These factories, many owned by British, French, German and US capitalists, were the site of intense class struggle as workers fought for better pay and conditions and for democratic rights.
In the countryside small peasants and landless rural workers, never meaningfully freed from the bonds of serfdom, laboured under the yoke of aristocratic and kulak exploitation. Everywhere the Tsarist government responded with brutality and oppression. Firing on striking workers, brutalising peasant communities and crushing insurrection. The liberal and bourgeois parties in the Russian Duma were unable and unwilling to carry forward the struggle for democratic rights.
In this context the outbreak of World War One was as a match to a powder keg. The disastrous campaigns conducted by the incompetent Tsarist general staff led to the slaughter and maiming of millions of workers and peasants on the Eastern Front. As the war progressed the economic situation of the working peoples of the Russian Empire deteriorated rapidly with food stuffs and essentials becoming increasingly scarce. In response to this, workers across Russia, but especially in the massive industrial cities of Petrograd and Moscow, engaged in strike action and demonstrations to demand food and necessities and an end to repression. The Tsarist government responded to this by the only means they understood: violence. Massacring striking workers and firing on demonstrators.
In an effort to shore up the faltering war effort, Tsar Nicholas the Second took personal control of operations on the Eastern Front, launching a new series of offensives. The result was comprehensive military defeat, territorial losses and hundreds of thousands of casualties. For the brutal Emperor of All the Russias this was to be the final blunder. Soldiers at the front mutinied and in the cities workers began to demand peace. Facing no alternative, the Tsar abdicated. In his place a Provisional Government was installed. This government, comprised of a coalition of the bourgeois parties, continued to be dominated by many of the same Tsarist ministers. The common determination of the Provisional Government was to carry on the war at all costs at the behest of the French and British capitalist classes.
The Provisional Government continued the slaughter on the Eastern Front with a new vigour. More and more the working people began to demand an end to the war. At the front soldiers began to refuse to fight. The Provisional Government, lacking any base of support or popular mandate, responded with the same violence and repression as the Tsar had. All the while the Bolshevik Party began to win more and more support among the workers and peasants throughout the Empire and among soldiers at the front. Vladimir Illich Lenin’s simple promise of Peace, Land and Bread became the common demand of working people.
By the time the Aurora sounded its guns and entered the annals of history, the writing had long been on the wall for the Provisional Government. Over the preceding day the Bolshevik led Petrograd Soviet had openly set about seizing key points in the capital in preparation for the revolution. The Provisional Government, powerless to resist could only observe and await its fate. The storming of the Winter Palace was the crescendo of a bloodless revolution. The ministers who waited in the Imperial Throne Room to be arrested were briefly apprehended, charged and released. Even those present on the night must not have realised the world-shaking implications of the events which had taken place. News began to spread throughout the Empire and the world that workers had taken power into their own hands.
The bloodless nature of the revolution would prove to be short-lived. What followed was a five-year civil war, the most destructive and costly in terms of human life in European history. The Red Army would have to battle and defeat reactionary whites and the interventionist armies of fourteen countries before the imperialist camp was prepared to accept the reality of working class state power in Russia. The Soviet Union and her peoples emerged from the Civil War bloodied but determined to proceed with the construction of a radically different, new form of society.
The changes brought about by the revolution were immediate and shaped the course of world history.
Almost instantly, the revolution brought an end to centuries of Tsarist oppression and unleashed popular and democratic forces never before seen. For the first time in history the apparatus of the state was in the hands of the workers and peasants. The massive factories and workshops of the major cities were expropriated and began to be ran by committees of the workers themselves. In the countryside peasants revived communal traditions and redistributed the land.
The Bolsheviks immediately set about removing Russia from the Great War which had ravaged the continent for over three years. Throughout Europe social democrats of the Second International had betrayed the cause of the international working class and chose to back the cause of their own ruling classes in the conflict. Lenin had declared that:
“The war [is] imperialist (that is, an annexationist, predatory, war of plunder) on the part of both sides. It is a war for the division of the world, for the partition and repartition of colonies and spheres of influence [and] of finance capital”.
The Bolsheviks understood that the war was a struggle between competing ruling classes and the working people had nothing to gain from slaughtering each other in their millions in the interests of those exploiters.
Russian withdrawal from the war was greeted across the former Empire. Almost immediately the Bolsheviks had delivered on one of the fundamental promises of the revolution. However, for the imperialist allied powers: Britain, France and the United States, this development was unacceptable. Determined to keep Russia in the war and within the web if the imperialist camp, they sent armies to Russia backed the reactionary white forces which fought to crush the Bolsheviks. Despite these seemingly insurmountable odds, the revolution triumphed in the ensuing civil war.
With peace achieved the Soviet people set about constructing a new order in human civilization. To quote Lenin once again:
“We want to achieve a new and better order of society: in this new and better society there must be neither rich nor poor; all will have to work. Not a handful of rich people, but all the working people must enjoy the fruits of their common labour. Machines and other improvements must serve to ease the work of all and not to enable a few to grow rich at the expense of millions and tens of millions of people. This new and better society is called socialist society”
During the interwar years Tsarist Russia was transformed from a backwards, rural, superstitious society into a modern economy. The Soviet Union was industrialised at a rate thought hitherto impossible. Within a decade the Soviet Union had begun to match and exceed the economies of the imperialist powers. While the capitalist world was gripped by economic crisis and the Great Depression in the 1930s the Soviet Union continued to grow. The benefits of this economic progress were delivered to the whole of the Soviet people. Illiteracy was eradicated and electricity reached vast swathes of the country for the first time. Universal free healthcare, housing and education was provided for the first time anywhere in the world. Full employment and economic democracy were guaranteed by the new state industries.
The expansion of democratic rights extended by Soviet socialism were the common property of all. Minorities and peoples of the Russian Empire long oppressed through centuries of Tsarist rule were for the first time guaranteed social and political rights and the right to self-determination. Racist and chauvinistic policies of Russification were ended. Women held the same political rights and duties as men, decades before this was achieved in the capitalist world. Moreover gender equality went far beyond formal voting rights and lip service – it meant full equality in the economic and social spheres.
We can never forget the heroic resistance of the Soviet people against Nazi fascism and their central role in the victory of democratic and peace-loving people’s everywhere. While imperialist politicians in Britain, France and the United States attempted to direct fascist brutality towards an invasion of the Soviet Union, the USSR worked to create a broad anti-fascist front. When war came it was the Soviet Red Army which turned back the seemingly invincible Nazi invader at Moscow and most famously at Stalingrad.
Four-fifths of the German army were defeated on the Eastern Front. Without the sacrifice made by tens of millions of Soviet citizens allied victory would have been impossible.
Following the war, the Soviet peoples again set themselves to the task of rebuilding their war-ravaged country. Along with the new People’s Democracies of the expanded socialist camp the Soviet Union again achieved record industrialisation and living standards for its peoples.
Throughout its existence and especially in the post war period the USSR played a unique role in securing peace and supporting revolutions and national liberation struggles across the globe. The revolutions in China, Cuba and Vietnam, to name but a few, would have been impossible without the material support of the Soviet Union. The national liberation and anti-colonial struggles in Africa, Asia and Latin America would have been all the more difficult without the ideological solidarity and backing of the USSR.
Over seven decades the Soviet Union fought to maintain peace and restrain the naked aggression of the imperialist powers. It was only the existence of a powerful socialist camp centred around the USSR which prevented a nuclear armed Britain, the United States and their NATO allies from crushing every attempt at democratic and socialist revolution and ending colonial oppression.
The Russian Revolution also had a fundamental effect on the political situation in Britain.
Legendary Communist Party General Secretary Harry Pollitt described his thoughts on hearing news of the revolution:
“The workers have done it at last.” “It wouldn’t have mattered, where this revolution had taken place, Timbuktu or Costa Rica. The thing that mattered was that lads like me had whacked the bosses and the landlords, had taken their factories, their lands and their banks…. That was enough for me. These were the lads and lasses I must support through thick and thin.”
Others were less enthusiastic. Cabinet Minister Winston Churchill announced his government’s intention to “strangle the Bolshevik baby in its cradle” through support to the rampaging White Armies and direct intervention. The British Empire was eager to maintain the bloodletting on the Eastern Front and determined to avoid the creation of a base for Socialism. Every Remembrance Sunday and with the poppy appeal we have the First World War falsely presented as a collective national struggle for freedom. Russian withdrawal from the war and the revolutions in Hungary and Germany brought home the class nature of the war to British workers and an increasing rejection of the exploiters’ war. Across Britain at various ports and railways stations troops mutinied and refused to board ships to Russia.
In the period between the wars the example of Soviet Union and stunning achievements of socialism there won thousands to the growing Communist Party. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union provided political and ideological leadership and support to communists in Britain and across the globe. The stunning victories of the Red Army in Second World War won thousands more to the cause of communism with the Party reaching over 60,000 members by the end of the War. Afterwards it was the example of the Soviet Union and the fear of a revolution in Britain which forced our ruling class to grant the concessions of the welfare state. Without the example of the USSR and the struggle of the British labour movement, council housing, the NHS and the nationalisation of key industries would have been impossible.
So, what is the relevance of the revolution today?
The October Revolution shows us that the youth will always play a leading role in revolutionary change. In the lead up to the Revolution well over two thirds of the Bolshevik Party were under the age of 30. It was young workers and soldiers who led the actions of the Great October Socialist Revolution and who volunteered in their hundreds of thousands for the Red Army to defend the young Soviet Republic. Following the Civil War, it was the youth who led the construction of socialism – flocking to the new state factories, collective farms, technical colleges and universities. In the Second World War it was the youth of the Soviet Union who led the fight against Nazi Fascism, millions making the ultimate sacrifice to defend the socialist system.
Today the most enduring legacy of the Great October Socialist Revolution is as a demonstration to humanity of the power of working people. Prior to the revolution socialism was an idea. After the revolution working class state power, the dictatorship of the proletariat, was political fact.
In its seven decade history the USSR was forced to overcome substantial internal and external challenges – the Civil War, World War II and constant NATO aggression during the Cold War. None of this ever caused the Soviet Union to falter in its effort to build socialism and fight for peace. Undoubtedly mistakes were made in the full history of the USSR and these must be studied and understood so that they can be avoided by those advancing down the path of socialism in future. We see that many of these lessons have already been learned by the countries of the socialist camp today – Cuba, China, Vietnam.
The achievements of the Soviet Union were stunning. Never before had working people seized the levers of power and won for themselves such social, economic and political advances. The destruction of the USSR was not the result of the failure of socialism but by a failure of those in power to adhere to principles of Marxism and the October Revolution and through the pressure of imperialist powers. The results of the restoration of capitalism in Eastern Europe speak for themselves are one of the greatest tragedies of our era. The biggest peace time drop in living standards and life expectancy in modern history, the rehabilitation of fascist ideology and the seizure of political power by oligarchs are but a few symptoms of the reintroduction of the ‘Free Market’.
Since the destruction of the USSR, capitalist societies have continued to become more and more unequal and the nature of class society becomes more apparent. The imperialist powers have waged war with renewed vigour.
But the world turns. History has not ended and the class struggle remains it’s the driving force. For the first time since the nineties socialist and communist forces are once again on the march and the momentum has shifted. Globally a new generation is flocking to the banner of communism. In this context we see the counterrevolution for was it is, a fleeting setback – a temporary reversal.
Lenin wrote that:
“The Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true. It is comprehensive and harmonious, and provides men with an integral world outlook irreconcilable with any form of superstition, reaction, or defence of bourgeois oppression.”
This was proven in October 1917 and it remains the case today. This truth and the spirit of the Revolution is carried on in the hearts and minds of the oppressed peoples of the world.
The Revolution proved the historical reality that it is possible to build a new, superior society -free from the exploitation of man by man – that system is socialism.
Socialism has existed, socialism exists and socialism will triumph!
Long live Lenin!
Long live the October Revolution!
Long live Communism!