October Revolution - Ninety Years On

Is the October Proletarian Revolution Relevant Today?

We are marking the passing of the Ninetieth Anniversary of the October Revolution with a common statement in its defense. The question of war or revolution is today as urgent as it is relevant. The UK spellings of the original document have been retained.

The October Revolution shook the world, as we perhaps too often hear repeated, after John Reed. (1) And unfortunately

the event so full of hope, the greatest in our time seems to have been totally turned against us.

Victor Serge - Trente ans après la Révolution russe in La Révolution Proletarienne No. 309

The revolution gave birth to the worst regime in history - Stalinism. The fact that the first proletarian revolution came to grief because it was unable to win on an international scale doesn’t lessen the necessity for such a revolution for all humanity.

But what happened after 1917?

The Party of Lenin and Trotsky were shot, documents were destroyed, hidden or falsified.

Idem Victor Serge

It was “midnight in the century” (2), which gave us fascism, Stalinism, the horrors of the Second World War, then the “Cold War” between the USA and the USSR, ending with the succession of wars, which have followed one another, since the revolution was halted. Humanity has never been able to rise up again and as a result has lived through a state of permanent war (the world has never been able to rediscover peace). The spark of hope was put out since the international revolution failed. This is a tragedy for humanity and the working class. A tragedy to be sure since capitalism exists everywhere in the world and this still allows the exploitation of man by man with its horrendous trail of poverty with the living hell of the underdeveloped countries and the confrontations between the leading imperialist powers sow death in Africa, Asia and the Middle East etc...

From this it is clear that a proletarian revolution is still needed for the benefit of the mass of humanity and the suppression of the profit of tiny minority. We know that capitalism isn’t the last mode of production. It is not eternal.

On the evidence of previous modes of production capitalism is condemned to disappear though in itself this will not necessarily lead to socialism. There is no end of history as long as the contradictions and conflicts of contradictory interests exist. Capitalism won’t be condemned because of its moral weakness but because its internal contradictions force it to self-destruction and because it gives rise to a class: the proletariat. The proletariat is capable of replacing it because it is the bearer of a superior form of social organisation.

In this article we don’t aim to answer the questions: how did the October Revolution succeed nor discus the lessons of its defeat.

We want to look at why proletarian revolution is as much on the agenda in the 21st Century as ever.

It is its very nature as a mass proletarian revolution, which gives its greatness. It signaled the destruction of the old order would be carried out by the masses themselves. It showed in deeds that a new world is not only desirable but in fact possible. And furthermore the proletarians demonstrated that a world without war was immediately achievable.

The October Revolution Against Imperialist World War

The October Revolution Shakes the World

For the world bourgeoisie there is nothing more shocking than any questioning of its military and warlike set up. Capitalism in its imperialist phase, which has become the way of life of capital since the beginning of the 20th Century, cannot survive without war.

And the working class rose proclaiming that we have to “turn the weapons against our own bourgeoisie”. This is really shocking!

This is what the workers dared to do in Russia and numerous other belligerent countries.

In Germany Karl Leibknecht called on workers and soldiers to revolt and “mutiny” during monster demonstrations in Berlin. In France, proletarians refused to fight. The bourgeoisie and generals like Petain had to severely repress and shoot them “as an example” and even organise “decimations” that is to say one man amongst ten mutineers was shot.

But the ruling classes quickly were forced into signing a ceasefire. This came after the risings, most notably in Kiel with the establishment of sailors’ councils, and the demonstrations in the day that followed which forced Germany to sign the November 11th 1918 armistice.

For the First Time The October Revolution Shatters the Old Order

By putting an end to feudalism the bourgeois revolution had shown that there was no divine right to power. The proletarian revolution teaches us that the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie has an end. Property isn’t a “right of man”. There is no right for one man to exploit another. At the same time the capitalist system isn’t the only possible system because it is more “rational” or a product of “human nature”. In fact capitalism cannot be thought of as the ultimate system in the long history of humanity, the finally discovered or “ideal” system.

On the contrary, in our view October brings hope of anew world, that is to say, the achievement of socialism for the masses and the proletariat of the whole world. This is what Rosa Luxemburg described in one of her magisterial passages several months after the revolution, and before her death In this sense theirs (3) is the immortal historical legacy 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 realisation 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.

The Russian Revolution (Ann Arbor 1961 p.80)

Unfortunately the problem was only “posed” in that epoch. It had not been “resolved”.

Moreover it could not be in Russia but only internationally.

Proletarian Revolution Carried Out by the Masses Themselves

October 1917 crowned what Marxism had foreseen for a century. In continuity with the bourgeois revolution which had been carried out by the beginning of the eighteenth century in England under Cromwell, and in France by the end of the same century in order to create anew political and economic system: capitalism, on the ruins of feudalism, it is now the turn of the working class to take power in order destroy at last the exploitation of man by man and to create a new system: socialism.

The working masses which had fought unsuccessfully in the nineteenth Century and who had suffered several defeats notably after the Paris Commune in 1871, launches itself once more in an assault on heaven like an unstoppable force at last aiming to take power.

"The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historic events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business - kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgement of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entry of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny." (Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, (Preface) p.17 Pluto Press 1977)

Yes, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was first of all and above all a magnificent action of the exploited masses first to stop the imperialist war (no longer to be cannon fodder on the military fronts for imperialist interests that were not theirs) and then to attempt to destroy that order which had reduced them to the condition of pack animals of the economic machine. Yes, it is an action where millions of proletarians, drag behind them the other exploited layers of Russian society.

Yes, they have all joined together to break their atomisation, to consciously unite and give themselves the means to act collectively as a single force through their workers councils, which are in their factories or workplaces.

Yes, this was a new way of organising an of working class power. Yes, the eruption of the masses had the aim of making them controllers of their own destiny, they were fighting to build another society, a society without exploitation, without wars, without classes and without nations: communist society.

The Decisive and Irreplaceable Role of the Revolutionary Party

But all this was only possible thanks to the decisive role of the revolutionary party, the Bolshevik Party, and within it, of Lenin, who in April saw that the party had to be put back on track after the serious derailment by the previous leaders (who included Stalin). The presence of a revolutionary party, which had worked for the revolution for years inside the working class, is what made the decisive difference with other potentially revolutionary situations. The Councils were also formed in Germany but were immediately controlled by Social Democracy, and because of that were sterilised, to be later eliminated once the “Red Sea” had been crossed in Hungary.

The newly born Communist Party of Germany “had to” carry the dead weight of so-called left Social Democracy which made it enormously easier for the triumph of the counter-revolution. In Italy, poor peasants, farm labourers, and workers managed to occupy land and factories, and to question the absolute authority of capital over the labour force: mutinies of entire divisions of soldiers added to the proletarian revolts on the streets. But in all this exalting experience there was no party, the one organism capable of drawing together the enormous readiness of the workers to struggle, giving them coherent revolutionary tactics and a strategy. In short, the party had not yet been born, and when it was, it was too weak to be a rallying point for the working class. The “western” revolutionary groups had spent too long procrastinating inside Social Democracy and thus missed their appointment with history.

In short, the party had not yet been born, and when it was, it was too weak to be a rallying point for the working class. The “western” revolutionary groups had spent too long procrastinating inside Social Democracy and thus missed their appointment with history.

Obviously we are not trying to stupidly and pointlessly stand in judgement of those comrades in the past, male and female, who truly gave so generously for the proletarian cause, often even their lives, but simply to register an undeniable fact: where a proletarian party was present the workers were able to overthrow the bourgeois state and lay the foundations for proletarian power in a classless society. In all other cases proletarian hopes were drowned in a river of blood by the reactionary bourgeoisie, aided by Social Democracy, whose support was as incalculable as it was infamous. The October Revolution in Russia has been, until now - unfortunately - the only time when the two elements of the revolutionary dialectic, masses and party met: the soviets, the bodies of proletarian power, and the revolutionary organisation, i.e. consciousness, programme and political leadership. Together the appearance of the bodies of proletarian power (the soviets) and the irreplaceable role of the party are the great inheritance the October Revolution has bequeathed to us.

In order for a social class to take power it is necessary that the social conditions for change come together, it is not possible at all times. The exploited slaves in the ancient world revolted, they even had a victorious insurrection, which lasted two years against Rome: the Spartacus revolt. (4) But the slaves were not capable of succeeding in a revolution to liberate humanity and suppress the ancient mode of production. In that epoch the system, which was in line to replace ancient society was feudalism, which represented just one more society based on exploitation.

Proletarian Revolution is on the Agenda

In 1914 it was totally different, capitalism had undergone an extraordinary social and economic development and the working class clearly postulated its overthrow to establish a classless society. And this sis based on the political, economic and social realities which then fettered the development of wealth and productive capacities with the appearance of over-production, the inability to employ all the productive forces (mass unemployment) to which we can add a succession of destructive wars. This is how Marx described this situation where a society was about to disappear.

The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered... The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. (5)

We have now stressed the importance and historical significance of the October Revolution.

But is it still relevant today?

Is the International Proletarian Revolution Still Necessary?

We must first repeat that the October Revolution has nothing to do with the bloody and exploitative barbarism, which immediately followed it in the 1920s. Indeed the Russian Revolution was stifled, isolated, due to the defeat of revolutionary struggles in the rest of Europe, especially Germany. The Stalinist bureaucracy was its hypocritical and pitiless executioner. The proletariat was never so savagely exploited than under this regime, which decked itself out in the finest socialist attire. It was called socialist with forced labour in the camps or in the huge public works where the workers laboured like beasts of burden (Stakhanovism) without any protection against the risks and rigours of the work. The workers were subject to corveés and other forms of forced labour at will, this was a mixture of feudalism and oriental despotism but overall the proletarians were exploited like everywhere else in the world because Russia was a capitalist country if under a particular form of capitalism - state capitalism.

But what happened in the Twenties doesn’t detract from the magnificent and intrepid “storming of heaven” by the Russian proletarian masses. Comparing the October Revolution to Stalinism is as valid as comparing the Paris Commune of 1871 with the Thiers regime which immediately followed it.

October has nothing to do with Stalinism

Nevertheless October 1917 wasn’t just one revolutionary event amongst others. The Russian revolution constitutes and remains to the present day - and by far - the most important revolutionary experience of the world working class.

Capitalism still stands for the exploitation of man and holds back the arrival of a new world for the liberation of humanity and an end to all the imperialist conflicts to redivide the world amongst capitalist sharks.

If humanity wants to end exploitation and to arrive at a better world which slaves, serfs and proletarians have dreamed of for millennia it finds itself facing the same situation, and to put an end to a system “shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping with filth” the only thing is to destroy it. And what Rosa Luxemburg proclaimed about imperialism.

We are today faced with a choice: either the final triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture with, as consequences, like in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a great cemetery or the real victory of socialism, that is to say the conscious struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and it methods; against war is still valid today. “liberty or death”.

There is no other alternative since capitalism more and more sows death.

"Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping with filth, thus capitalist society stands Not as we usually see it, playing the roles of peace and righteousness, of order, of philosophy, of ethics - as a roaring beast, as an orgy of anarchy, as a pestilential breath, devastating culture and humanity - so it appears in all its hideous nakedness [...] We are today faced with a choice: either the final triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture with, as consequences, like in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a great cemetery or the real victory of socialism, that is to say the conscious struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its methods; against war." (Rosa Luxemburg The Crisis of Social Democracy in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (Pathfinder Press 1970) p.262 and 269.)

The Russian Revolution is and remains so up to the present and by some distance the most important revolutionary experience of the greatest number for the greatest number: the world working class.

It concerns the most important movement of the greatest number for the greatest number for the highest stakes which humanity has to play for, “liberty or death”, or to put it another way, “socialism or barbarism” In stressing this, everyone can see the enormous task which the proletariat wanted to accomplish in October 1917 and the heavy responsibilities which weigh on us at the beginning of the 21st century.

In terms of its duration, of the numbers of workers involved and its level of consciousness, by the fact that it represented the most advanced point to the international movement of workers struggles, by the extent and depth of the upheaval that they tried to carry out the Russian Revolution constitutes the most powerful of revolutionary experiences of the working class. As such it is a rich source of lessons for future workers struggles.

Yes, October 1917 belongs to us and everything remains to be done.

(1) Ten Days that Shook the World.

(2) This description is also Victor Serge’s.

(3) We understand that the “theirs” referred to is to the Bolshevik Party as a whole and inseparable from the proletariat.

(4) Spartacus, la liberte ou la mort, Marcel Ollivier, Editions Spartacus.

(5) The Communist Manifesto Pekin 1975 p.40.