90 Years of the October Revolution
Crack Bolshevik regiment marches on Smolny where Congress of Soviets was meeting under banners
proclaiming “All Power to the Soviets! Long Live the Revolution!”
By Jan Norden
This is the 90th anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917. We commemorate this date – October 25 by the old Gregorian calendar, November 7 by the modern calendar – because it marks an event which was a turning point in world history, and indeed, the seminal event of the 20th century. The March 1917 overthrow of the tsarist autocracy, which ruled the vast Russian Empire, and the victory eight months later of the workers revolution led by the Bolshevik Party, put an end to World War I, the first global imperialist conflagration, and shook the old order from the imperial centers of Europe to the farthest reaches of their colonial “possessions.” The revolution headed by V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky continued to be key to world events for the next three-quarters of a century, long after Joseph Stalin and his bureaucratic henchmen had seized power and betrayed the internationalist program of Red October.
Likewise, the counterrevolution that destroyed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) along with the Soviet-bloc bureaucratically deformed workers states during the period 1989-92 represented a world-historic defeat for the proletariat of the entire planet. Yet contrary to the imperialist ideologues, communism is not dead, we have not entered a “new world order” of peace and prosperity, and we have not reached the “end of history” – far from it. Nor, as a host of self-proclaimed socialists declare, have we been thrown back to the period before October; on the contrary, we must base ourselves on the program and achievements of Lenin and Trotsky. The revolution will rise again, and in order to lead it to victory, this time on world scale, a central task facing revolutionaries today is to draw the lessons both of the victory of 1917 and of the defeat that opened the post-Soviet period.
It is useful to begin with a quote from Karl Marx, in his pamphlet The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852). This was his essay on the defeat of the 1848 Revolution in France and subsequent proclamation of an empire by Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew in December 1851. At the beginning of his pamphlet, Marx wrote:
“Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the 18th century, storm more swiftly from success to success, their dramatic effects outdo each other, men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds, ecstasy is the order of the day – but they are short-lived, soon they have reached their zenith, and a long Katzenjammer [morning-after hangover] takes hold of society before it learns to assimilate the results of its storm-and-stress period soberly. On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the 19th century, constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their opponents only so the latter may draw new strength from the earth and rise before them again more gigantic than ever, recoil constantly from the indefinite colossalness of their own goals – until a situation is created which makes all turning back impossible.”
Marx was distinguishing the proletarian revolution from the classic bourgeois revolutions, underscoring that setbacks and defeats are an inevitable part of the struggle by the exploited and oppressed to take power from their exploiters and oppressors. A key reason for this is that the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century marked the taking of political power by a class that was already the dominant class economically. They were delivering the coup de grace, so to speak, to finish off a feudal order that was on the verge of collapse. The proletariat, on the other hand, can establish its economic dominance only after seizing political power and then instituting a socialized, planned economy. Hence, it will always be in a position of relative economic weakness beforehand. That is an important reason why forging a political leadership is far more decisive for the proletarian revolution than for the late bourgeois revolutions.
We look back to Red October of 1917, Krasny Oktyabr in Russian, because it represented the first successful workers revolution in history. It remains the only revolution carried out by the proletariat, whereas many subsequent revolutions (China, Vietnam, Cuba) were based on the peasantry. As James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, said in a 1939 speech, “The Russian Bolsheviks on November 7, 1917, once and for all, took the question of the workers’ revolution out of the realm of abstraction and gave it flesh and blood reality” (Cannon, The Struggle for a Proletarian Party). Prior to 1917, the only other attempt by the working class to seize power was the Paris Commune of 1871, which was drowned in blood after barely two months. More than 30,000 Communards were killed in the fighting, and perhaps another 50,000 were executed later by the victorious counterrevolution.
If you think of the impact of the bourgeoisie’s triumphalist cries of the “death of communism” following the demise of the USSR, imagine the impact of tens of thousands dead in 1871. Yet despite the defeat in Paris, not even three and a half decades later you had the Russian Revolution of 1905, which served as a “dress rehearsal” for 1917. Fast forward to 1990, and as the Soviet Union is coming apart, Republican George Bush the Elder proclaims a U.S.-dominated “New World Order.” A few years later, Democrat Bill Clinton’s secretary of state Albright declares the United States to be the “sole superpower,” the supposedly “indispensable power.” Yet barely a decade and a half later, U.S. imperialism is sinking in the quicksands of the Near East while its economy is in crisis, teetering on the edge of a severe recession or new depression.
Why Did the October Revolution Take Place?
So let’s look at the lessons of Red October. In the first place, we should understand why it took place in Russia. Lenin emphasized that the rotting tsarist empire was the “weakest link” in the imperialist chain. It was weak, first, because the autocracy had become a parasitic outgrowth on an economy that was increasingly capitalist. The feudal landed estates had already undergone a considerable transformation with the 1861 Emancipation Edict issued by Tsar Alexander II which formally ended serfdom in response to a series of peasant revolts. Of course, that didn’t mean the peasants escaped from poverty. On the contrary, they were thrown off the land and became vagrants, migrating to the cities. There were all the signs of a dying Old Regime. The court was rife with palace intrigues, with the Tsarina Alexandra (under the influence of the sinister Rasputin) embodying imperial arrogance much as Marie Antoinette did in France on the eve of the French Revolution of 1789. And so on.
But the Russian Empire wasn’t the only dying empire around. The Ottoman Empire was notoriously on its last legs, so much so that it was known as the “sick man of Europe.” World War I led to its demise, with the rise of a series of states in the Near East and the Balkans; its core become modern-day Turkey. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was decrepit, and collapsed in the imperialist world war as well, leaving two rump states, Austria and Hungary, as well as an independent Czechoslovakia, and pieces going to Poland, the Ukraine, Italy and Yugoslavia. So why was the Russian empire the weakest link? Partly because of the tremendous advance of industrial production. Not only was the Ukraine the breadbasket of Europe, exporting huge quantities of grain, but in the industrial centers there were everything from textile plants to giant munitions factories (such as the Putilov Works, the hotbed of revolution), with the most modern production techniques. And along with this you had the growth of an industrial working class.
Most importantly, it was in Russia that the Marxists had produced a revolutionary nucleus that was able to draw numerous lessons from the struggle that aided in achieving the subsequent revolutionary victory. In an essay on “The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement,” Cannon observed that Lenin and Trotsky, and the Bolsheviks generally, were able to understand the struggle against black oppression, which is the key question of workers revolution in the United States, because the tsarist empire was a “prison house of peoples,” of a host of oppressed nations, nationalities and pre-national peoples. It was impossible for the proletariat to lead a revolution in Russia without simultaneously championing the cause of these oppressed peoples. In the U.S., on the other hand, prior to the Russian Revolution, even the most left-wing socialists like Eugene Debs declared that “We have nothing special to offer the Negro,” taking a “color blind” position that was blind to the oppression of blacks. Meanwhile, the right-wing socialists included open racists like Victor Berger.
Elsewhere in Europe, at this time, the most militant sectors of the working class were split between revolutionary syndicalists and left-wingers in the parliamentary Socialist parties. The Bolsheviks alone were able to overcome these divisions, partly because the tsarist Duma was a mockery of bourgeois parliamentarism, and because of its impotence didn’t have the power of attraction that the West European legislative talk-shops had. In contrast, in the course of the 1905 Revolution the social democrats had participated in the soviets, or workers councils, leading up to a general strike and the verge of an armed insurrection, which the Bolsheviks were preparing to lead while the Mensheviks recoiled in horror at the prospect. These experiences enabled the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky to overcome many of the stumbling blocks which had bedeviled the West European workers movement. Finally, Russia was the weakest of the major combatants in World War I, and whereas in the rest of the major powers the social democrats either supported “their own” imperialist bourgeoisies or were paralyzed by impotent pacifism, the Bolsheviks stood for defeat of “their own” imperial masters and called to “transform the imperialist war into civil war,” that is, to fight for social revolution.
So these are some of the social factors that answer the question, Why Russia? But even more fundamental was the “subjective factor,” the existence of a revolutionary leadership. This was organized in the Bolshevik Party, and embodied in the persons of Lenin, who had led the party for almost a decade and a half of turbulent struggles, and Trotsky whose Mezhrayontsi (Interdistrict) group fused with the Bolsheviks in 1917. The Bolshevik party differed from the European social-democratic parties in that it sought to be the party of the proletarian vanguard rather than a “party of the whole class” as advocated by Karl Kautsky. At decisive moments of war and revolution, the reformist pro-capitalist leadership of official Social Democracy held leftist elements in check, even resorting to murder to stave off revolution. In contrast, from the time of his 1902 pamphlet What Is To Be Done? Lenin fought to build a party of the revolutionary minority, a position he initially arrived at empirically and later theoretically generalized. This was decisive.
Even so, in 1917, the Bolshevik “Old Guard” including Lev Kamenev, Grigorii Zinoviev and Stalin stood in the way of proletarian revolution, first calling for “critical support” of the provisional government “insofar as” it “struggles against reaction,” to which Lenin counterposed (in his April Theses) the call for “all power to the soviets” and opposition to the bourgeois government. Then, on the eve of October, Zinoviev and Kamenev opposed an insurrection (unless agreed to by the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries), while Stalin was nowhere to be seen (contrary to the later Stalinist mythology). Lenin and Trotsky, as head of the Petrograd Soviet and its Military-Revolutionary Committee, organized the uprising, and without them, the October Revolution would never have happened. This poses the question of the role of the individual in history. Unlike many bourgeois historians, Marxists do not think that history is made by a series of “great men,” and unlike the Stalinists, we do not engage in hero worship or turn our leaders into icons. At the same time, conditioned by fundamental social forces, at key moments in the class struggle individuals can play a pivotal role. Here is what Trotsky wrote about October 1917, in his Diary in Exile (1934):
“Had I not been present in 1917 in Petersburg, the October Revolution would still have taken place – on the condition that Lenin was present and in command. If neither Lenin nor I had been present in Petersburg, there would have been no October Revolution: the leadership of the Bolshevik Party would have prevented it from occurring – of this I have not the slightest doubt! If Lenin had not been in Petersburg, I doubt whether I could have managed to conquer the resistance of the Bolshevik leaders. The struggle with ‘Trotskyism’ (i.e., with the proletarian revolution) would have commenced in May, 1917, and the outcome of the revolution would have been in question. But I repeat, granted the presence of Lenin the October Revolution would have been victorious anyway.”
But Lenin and Trotsky were there, the October Revolution did take place and instituted a regime based on the soviets of workers and soldiers deputies. In addition to overcoming the opposition of the Bolshevik Old Guard, who clung to the idea that Russia would first have to go through a separate bourgeois revolution before the workers could take power, Lenin elaborated the question theoretically, in his book “The State and Revolution” dealing with “The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution.” Here he elaborated on Marx’s conclusion, based on the experience of the Paris Commune, that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” He spelled out how the dictatorship of the proletariat would be realized by a state based on workers councils (soviets), doing away with the parliamentary dens of corruption and pseudo-democracy of periodic elections controlled by money and replacing them through the “conversion of the representative institutions from talking shops into ‘working’ bodies,” of delegates recallable at any time by the bodies which appointed them. Today many would-be Marxists present soviets as purely democratic bodies, while leaving out their vital class content as organs of workers rule.
As Lenin stressed, such soviet rule was infinitely more democratic than most democratic bourgeois state, which is a machine for imposing the class interests of the capitalists. The soviets were not an invention of some idealist thinker but grew out of the 1905 Revolution. And by themselves, they were no guarantee of revolutionary victory. Subsequently, anarchists, bourgeois liberals and White Guard reactionaries joined in praising the soviets while denouncing the communists. “Soviets without Communists” was the slogan of the Kronstadt uprising of 1921 which threatened the very survival of the revolution. Yet if the Bolsheviks had not won the leadership of the soviets, there would have been no October Revolution. The subsequent Stalinist bureaucratization gutted the soviets, at the same time as it destroyed the Bolshevik party that made the revolution. Workers soviets under communist leadership, backed by the mass of the poor peasantry and oppressed peoples, were the key to Red October.
Aftermath of October
The Russian October Revolution led to attempts at workers revolution throughout Europe. One year later, almost to the day, on 9 November 1918, the German workers rose up and overthrew the Hohenzollern monarchy as the Russian workers toppled the Romanov dynasty. There followed uprisings in Bavaria, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, Latvia. The Bolshevik Revolution also sparked a series of revolts among the colonial slaves of Western imperialism. In Europe the social-democratic parties of the Second International, sliding into reformism, failed to champion the cause of the colonial peoples, while the right wing actively participated in colonialism. Even some of the centrists talked of a “socialist colonial policy,” as strange as that may sound today. Not surprisingly, most of these reformists and centrists subsequently supported “their own” bourgeois rulers in the imperialist world war. But when the colonial peoples saw that the Bolsheviks had taken power calling for support to colonial revolts, they responded with enthusiasm. There were uprisings in the Rif (Morocco) and Indonesia, a rapid and explosive development of the Communist Party in China, the beginnings of a CP in India and elsewhere.
From left: Trotsky, Lenin and Kamenev at 1919 Bolshevik party congress.
Red October had a tremendous impact in every sphere of social life internationally. Much of modern art was deeply influenced by the Russian Constructivists. Modern architecture is almost entirely derived from the experiments in the early Soviet Union, notably the construction of workers clubs and housing, not only emphasizing clean lines and bold designs, but also including social innovations such as reading rooms, recreation and cultural centers. Bauhaus in Germany was a direct reflection of this ferment. The modern cinema was greatly influenced by Soviet filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein, whose movie October (also known as Ten Days That Shook the World, the title of John Reed’s account of the 1917 workers insurrection) we showed to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the revolution. Poster art today is directly derived from the Bolsheviks’ propaganda posters. Even modern typography comes straight from the Soviet Union, where the victorious revolutionaries replaced the elaborate curly-cue letters of the traditional Cyrillic alphabet with modern sans-serif typefaces. Educational reform movements arose throughout West Europe and in the U.S., as well as in Latin America, seeking to drag schools out of their “classical” mold of education for an elite into the modern age of an industrial society which required an educated population. But in Russia these “reforms” were quickly translated into reality, and educational reformists such as John Dewey flocked to Soviet Russia to “see the future.”
Yet these great beginnings never really got past the experimental stage, because of the political counterrevolution that set in under Joseph Stalin and his heirs, who seized power in 1923-24. It was notable that the leaders of this political counterrevolution, the troika or Triumvirate of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev, were the same ones who opposed workers revolution in 1917. The ascendant bureaucracy soon stopped building clubs for workers, for example, because they didn’t want workers to be able to congregate except under its control. The bureaucrats distrusted workers and intellectuals, both of whom had supported Trotsky against the Triumvirate. But more than a simple power struggle was involved. The revolution had occurred in an economically backward, predominantly peasant country, surrounded by more advanced capitalist nations. The Bolsheviks had faced more than a dozen foreign armies. West European imperialists and East European capitalist regimes along with the United States, Japan and China dispatched at least 150,000 troops in expeditionary forces to join with the counterrevolutionary White armies seeking to crush the Bolshevik “Reds.” Following the failure of that intervention, with the Red victory in the 1918-21 Russian Civil War, the imperialists then sought to throw up a cordon sanitaire to quarantine the “Bolshevik bacillus.” This included a diplomatic and economic blockade every bit as ferocious as the U.S. “embargo” that has besieged the tiny island of Cuba for almost half a century since the victory of the revolution there.
On top of this, the series of revolutions in Europe had all failed: the Spartakist Uprising in 1919 in Germany; the short-lived Bavarian and Hungarian Soviet Republics in the same year; 1920 in Italy when the workers in the north took over the factories; also in 1920 the failed Red Army invasion of Poland. Over and over, Germany was the focus of struggle: in 1920, the workers rose up to smash an attempted coup d’état by right-wing nationalists known as the Kapp putsch. in 1921, there was the fiasco of the botched “March Action,” when the inexperienced Communist Party (whose leaders Luxemburg and Liebknecht had been murdered two years earlier) thought it could simply decree a revolution; in 1923, an elaborate plan for a nationwide German uprising went awry, primarily because of contradictory instructions from Moscow, reflecting the opposition of Stalin and his (by then) henchman Zinoviev to carrying out a revolution, while Trotsky did everything possible to push the revolution forward. On the ground in Germany, these conflicting lines led to paralysis and defeat.
Permanent Revolution vs. “Socialism in One Country”
So the combination of economic blockade, the aftereffects of a bloody civil war and the isolation resulting from the failure of the revolution to spread to the European imperialist heartland due to inexperienced leaderships of the young Communist Parties – all of this combined to feed into a growing conservative, nationalist backlash in the Soviet Union. This mood was embraced by the nascent bureaucracy which wanted above all stability so that it could enjoy its new privileges in peace. And it found a spokesman in Stalin, who together with the other members of the troika blocked Trotsky from becoming the central leader of the Bolsheviks upon Lenin’s death in January 1924. When that alliance crumbled, Stalin allied with Nikolai Bukharin, another of the Bolshevik “Old Guard,” to thwart Trotsky. The ideological cover for this anti-revolutionary alliance was opposition to Trotsky’s perspective of permanent revolution, and of the October Revolution’s program of international socialist revolution, in favor of the pipe dream of socialism in one country.
Soviet post-Civil War poster: “With weapons, we finished off the enemy. Through labor, we will obtain bread. Everyone to work, comrades.”
We cannot here go into these differences in great detail. Briefly, Trotsky held, based on an analysis of the Russian Revolution of 1905, that in the imperialist epoch, the bourgeoisies in the economically backward capitalist and semi-feudal countries were too weak and too threatened by the spectre of an uprising by workers and peasants that they could not carry out the classic tasks of the bourgeois revolutions: democracy, national liberation and agrarian revolution. Instead, they regularly aligned themselves with the most reactionary forces. The peasantry, on the other hand, lacked the coherent interests and social/economic power of one of the fundamental classes – bourgeoisie or proletariat – and while deeply oppressed, it was not able to lead a revolution. Thus in order to achieve even these basic democratic tasks, it was necessary for the working class to take power, supported by the poor peasantry and other oppressed layers. Having done so, the proletariat would be obliged, if only to preserve the revolution, to undertake socialist tasks by expropriating the bourgeoisie and extending it internationally to the imperialist centers.
This was Trotsky’s early, 1905 formulation of the permanent revolution, a concept that goes back to Marx’s writings after the failure of the 1848 revolutions due to the betrayal of the German, French and Austrian bourgeoisies. And what Trotsky foresaw was what happened in Russia in 1917. That is, the October Revolution positively confirmed the perspective of permanent revolution. A decade later, in 1927, permanent revolution was confirmed in the negative in China when the failure of the working class to take power – due to the prohibition by Stalin and Bukharin imposed on the Chinese Communist Party – led to a bloody defeat at the hands of the nationalist general Chiang Kai-shek. Writing in 1929, Trotsky added one more, crucial, element, namely, that the working class must take power led by its communist party. This was something he had failed to emphasize or fully comprehend in the pre-1917 period, before he joined with Lenin in the course of the revolutionary upheaval, to carry out the program of all power to the soviets over the opposition of the Bolshevik “Old Guard.”
We refer to Trotsky’s perspective of permanent revolution, in order to emphasize that it is simultaneously a theory and a program for action. Quite a few pseudo-Trotskyists refer only to the theory, and don’t see it as a key programmatic question. Many present it as an objective force that will impose itself whether or not the leadership calls for this program. This objectification then serves as a “theoretical” justification for politically supporting petty-bourgeois forces, such as Castroite guerrillas in Latin America and Maoist peasant armies in Asia, on the grounds that, like it or not, they would be obliged to expropriate the bourgeoisie, no matter what their formal programs call for. In reality, the class-collaborationist programs of the Castro and Mao Stalinists have led to defeat after defeat, at a horrendous cost of working-class militants’ lives.
To block Trotsky, in 1924 Zinoviev and others penned rabid denunciations of permanent revolution, and in 1925 Bukharin and Stalin proclaimed the anti-Marxist dogma of “socialism in one country.” Again, it is not possible to elaborate here on this fundamental question. Briefly, as early as 1845, in the German Ideology, Marx declared that “Communism is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples ‘all at once’ and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with communism.” Otherwise, he wrote, “each extension of intercourse [i.e., trade] would abolish local communism,” by undermining the isolated workers state with the power of the world market. As Trotsky emphasized, the revolution could break out in a single country, even an economically backward country, but for it to open the door to socialism the revolution must spread to the most advanced capitalist powers. Since a communist or even socialist, classless society can only be built on the basis of generalized prosperity not poverty, Trotsky analyzed in his work, The Revolution Betrayed (1936), seeking to maintain an isolated workers state would require an enormous expansion of police powers to decide who got scarce resources. This is what occurred in the Stalinized Soviet Union, which he termed a bureaucratically degenerated workers state. The subsequent East European regimes that arose following the victory of the Soviet Red Army over Hitler Germany (as well as the Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Cuban regimes), modeled on the Stalinist USSR, were bureaucratically deformed workers states from birth.
Under Stalin and the Stalinists, the program of building what they called “socialism” only in the Soviet Union soon was translated into actively opposing revolution elsewhere. After the Stalinists and social democrats let Hitler took power unimpeded in 1933, their panicked response was to launch the popular front. Instead of a workers united front against the fascists, as Trotsky advocated in Germany, the popular front was a class-collaborationist coalition with sections of the bourgeoisie. But the supposed “anti-fascist” (or “anti-imperialist” or “antiwar”) bourgeoisie quickly drops its “democratic” and “progressive” pretenses the minute it sees capitalist class rule threatened. This invariably leads to defeat (often bloody) for the working people, as in the victory of Franco in Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, the triumph of Marshal Pétain in France in 1940, or in the post-World War II period, in the Suharto coup in Indonesia in 1965 and the Pinochet coup in Chile in 1973. Following this logic, Stalin dissolved the Communist International in 1943, as a sop to his imperialist allies in the Second World War.
Defense of the Degenerated/Deformed
Workers States and