Today marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the 1917 October Revolution.
rs21 celebrates the Revolution as a high-water mark in human history. The seizure of state power in Russia by ordinary working people showed the world that ruling-class power was not invincible, and ushered in a period of struggles and uprisings across Europe.
We draw a sharp distinction between the Stalinist state which ultimately usurped power in the Soviet Union, and the genuine working-class government of the years following 1917. The extraordinary gains of the Revolution – workers’ control over economic production; the repudiation of war and imperialism; the legalisation of divorce and homosexuality; strong opposition to racism, and a policy of international solidarity – were achieved in the context of some of the most constricting circumstances seen in any country before or since, including an acute famine and a harrowing civil war.
This does not mean, to us, that there cannot have been genuine shortcomings and failings on the part of the revolutionaries in 1917. We know that revolutionaries then, like revolutionaries today, were human and imperfect, and ultimately products, at least in part, of the social context in which they lived. We also understand that socialist history is always made by millions of ordinary people, and not simply by a leadership whose names are remembered in the following years.
Nonetheless, we see the radically democratic socialist spirit of October 1917 as a critical signpost in the struggle to bring about a better future. We close with some words from John Reed, in his classic account of the birth of the Soviet state:
Immensely strengthened by the collapse of the last important stronghold of hostile military power in Russia, the Soviet Government began with confidence the organisation of the state…
With the decree on the Nationalisation of Banks, the formation of the Supreme Council of People’s Economy, the putting into practical operation of the Land decree in the villages, the democratic reorganisation of the Army, and the sweeping changes in all branches of the Government and of life, —with all these, effective only by the will of the masses of workers, soldiers and peasants, slowly began, with many mistakes and hitches, the moulding of proletarian Russia.
Not by compromise with the propertied classes, or with the other political leaders; not by conciliating the old Government mechanism, did the Bolsheviki conquer the power. Nor by the organized violence of a small clique. If the masses all over Russia had not been ready for insurrection it must have failed. The only reason for Bolshevik success lay in their accomplishing the vast and simple desires of the most profound strata of the people, calling them to the work of tearing down and destroying the old, and afterward, in the smoke of falling ruins, cooperating with them to erect the frame-work of the new….