Ninety Years Since the October Revolution

When the USSR collapsed, the international bourgeoisie sang communism’s requiem. The funeral oration was used to demonstrate how the failure of the supposedly communist Soviet Union proves that, outside of capitalism, there is no possibility of any other form of social organisation coming into existence. Capitalist relations of production and distribution were the only possible form of economic existence. Everything else is at best utopian, or at worst (so-called “real socialism”) has brought only misery and oppression to the very proletarians who took part.

The Experience of Bolshevik October

In fact what had failed was the Stalinist counter-revolution against the October Revolution which, by disguising the construction of state capitalism as socialism, opened up an epoch of ideological confusion for millions of proletarians. The tragic consequence of this has been the biggest political fracturing that has ever happened in the workers’ movement.

However, the ninety years which separate us from the first and only example of proletarian revolution have not passed in vain. There are still many valid lessons which today’s communists must draw from the experience if there is to be a revolutionary tomorrow.

The first thing that the October Revolution has taught us is that the working class as a whole is capable of making history. Against a century of cynicism about the capacity of the working class, Russian workers discovered the form by which a mass society could be run. Soviets arose out of their collective struggle against exploitation in 1905, when it was a practical solution to coordinating all the various strike committees. In 1917, soviets or workers’ councils were revived and proved to be the body that would represent the working class directly against the bourgeoisie. The “pigsty of bourgeois parliamentarism” (Lenin) is democracy for those who can afford it. Representatives are elected for years at a time and can ignore the wishes of their own electors whilst they kowtow to the moneyed interests of capital. It was this route which had led to the corruption of Social Democracy in Germany before the First World War. The Soviet, like the Paris Commune of 1871, was a working as well as a debating body. Its members were not representatives, but delegates of their electors, and could be recalled instantly if they failed to carry out their mandate. In short, the workers of Russia gave the world the political form that could be the basis of a classless society “of freely associated producers” (Marx). The Soviets only perished as the revolutionary workers perished fighting a war against world imperialism.

The second lesson is that a revolution is an exceptional event which, in order to come into existence, requires the sort of exceptional conditions that existed in Russia way back in 1917.

The necessary and indispensable condition which determines the movement of large masses of workers - as in the Russian experience - is to be found fundamentally in the economic conditions, in the deepening of capitalism’s economic crisis. There is no act of will, no divine inspiration, no other determining force that can replace the impulse of material conditions. That’s how it happened in Russia. The economic crisis which had led to the first world conflict, the physical devastation of that war, an entire society that was starving, this was what lay behind the movement of millions of peasants and proletarians against the war and into a head-on struggle with those responsible for it. As Lenin emphasised, the world war was the prime motor, the great accelerator which had thrown the Russian masses on the scene of history as the first act in what should have been an explosion of class struggle on an international scale.

But the necessary conditions are not in themselves sufficient. Devastating economic crises with their accompanying wars which induce the masses to move into action are not enough to define a revolutionary situation. What is needed is the presence of a party which knows how to link the spontaneity of the masses with the revolutionary programme. When the proletariat moves into action (in Russia there were also millions of peasants) it does so with reformist, economistic demands. It can move instinctively against the war and its hunger-inducing consequences, it can be drawn by the prospect of social change, it can even overthrow a regime but it also needs a political programme based on the theoretical gains from its own past historical experience. The bearer of this class programme is the proletarian political party. It is absolutely untrue that the struggle for demands, the struggle against the economic crisis or the refusal to continue the war can by themselves raise the political level of the masses as far as the revolutionary political programme. Rather, the contrary is true. If, when the masses move they have not created their vanguard - the revolutionary party then even the most hard-fought and determined revolt or insurrection is destined to fail. Only in Russia did there occur that synthesis between the objective conditions - which had made the proletarians and poor peasants rise up - and the subjective ones - represented by the masses themselves and by the working presence of the Bolshevik Party which politically guided the movement - without which no proletarian revolution would be able to be fully realised. If one of these two factors is absent, then there is no prospect of a successful outcome to the revolution. If the necessary conditions are absent then the proletariat will not rise up; if the party is absent then the signs for the outcome of the class struggle are negative. New generations of communists absolutely cannot reject this lesson from the October Revolution. If they do so they risk turning to futile idealist theories which make spontaneity, workerism and anti-partyism their battle cries.

Proletarian Internationalism

The third lesson from the experience of the Russian Revolution is that the revolution is either international or it is destined to fail, locked inside the national borders within which it was born. The whole strategy of the Bolshevik Party, of Lenin and of the Third International - starting with its political retraction of the counter-revolutionary positions based on the theory of socialism in one country - was based on the necessity that there be other revolutionary outbreaks internationally, or rather that for the Russian Revolution itself restriction to one country would herald defeat. For revolutionary Russia, the political isolation to which it was condemned by the absence of revolutions in Western Europe, meant that its own economic backwardness and the economic and political encirclement by capitalist countries who saw Bolshevism as the enemy to defeat at all costs and by all means, were fatal. A determining cause of the tragedy of the October Revolution is that one of the two factors which should have given an international dimension to the revolutionary process which began in Russia was absolutely weaker. The first element - the necessary but not sufficient condition of economic crisis and imperialist war - was there on an unprecedented and ferocious scale and had crossed all the countries of Europe and beyond. The proletarian masses were also stirring, particularly in Germany and Italy, but the second condition did not come about in time: the effective presence of communist parties. Yes, revolutionary parties came into being but they lagged behind the development of events. By delaying the break of the umbilical cord which attached them to the reformist parties of the Second International until there was a reflux in the proletarian struggle, the future revolutionary parties lost their appointment with history and so left the Bolshevik endeavour isolated and immersed in a series of insoluble problems inside its own national framework.

Thus the failure of the Russian Revolution as a result of its isolation from other revolutionary experiences, became complete in its first decade of life and not in subsequent times as the Stalinists, typical Trotskyists and Maoists of all shades and ideological faiths maintain.

The events which occurred afterwards: the most brutal of political reactions, the Stalinist purges inside the Bolshevik Party itself, the physical elimination of all opposition from the left; the economic aggression against the very proletariat who had made the revolution, these were the political and economic consequences of that defeat. And out of this defeat came the construction of state capitalism which the Stalinist regime disguised as socialism, a belief the Communist Parties of the Third International continued to instil in the proletarian masses of the world.

The Revolutionary Option is the Only Means of Proletarian Emancipation

The fourth irrefutable lesson which largely comes from the experience of the Bolshevik October is that the only way that the international proletarian masses can emancipate themselves from wage slavery is, and will be, to adopt the revolutionary solution. No short-cuts are possible, no alternative routes or partial steps exist. Every other option is destined to be defeated. Any other tactical expedient would end up not only weakening the class struggle, but would also devalue its revolutionary content by pointing it towards objectives which are not its own either as a solution to contingent problems or even worse as the strategic final goal. Too often, history has shown how abandoning the revolutionary path for alliances with sections of the bourgeoisie and for political objectives other than the dictatorship of the proletariat, have resulted in tragic and bloody defeats which have weighed heavily on successive attempts to revive the class struggle.

The mass movement, with the necessary presence of the revolutionary party, must lead towards the same objective of the revolutionary path. Any other choice is grist to the mill which works to preserve the existing order, continuously grinding out political defeat after political defeat. This presupposes that the starting point is the struggle against one’s own bourgeoisie, against every type of manifestation of imperialism, whether domestic or international. It means rejecting every expression of economic and political nationalism, whether in secular or fundamentalist religious form (which often presents itself in the garb of pseudo anti-imperialism); it means seeing the working class revolution as the only instrument of struggle against capitalism, against exploitation and social barbarisation.

Whilst in Lenin’s day the contradictions of the mode of production and distribution of social wealth had for the first time created the conditions for a severe international crisis which prefaced the First World War, capitalism today has made such gigantic steps that the exacerbation of its contradictions in recent times has given life to really monstrous societies where, side by side with the greater capacity to produce, an economic regime of progressive impoverishment and perennial instability has been established.

Faced with progressively lower profit rates, international capitalism has only increased its attack on the labour force. It has done so, and is still doing so on every front, whether direct or indirect wages. Reduced purchasing power for the proletariat, reduced health care, prolongation of working life and cuts in pensions. The old are working longer while the young find it increasingly difficult to find a job. Jobs are becoming more precarious, with work found in fits and starts and pay at starvation levels: Six months on, six months off and all the accompanying social consequences. This is not in Bangladesh or Benin but in the historic cathedrals of capitalism such as Europe and the USA. In the countries of the “periphery” - but not only there - the depredation of natural resources continues and intensifies; the forced expropriation of millions of poor peasants, for the most part destined to a miserable life struggling to survive while those who are “lucky” to find employment in the “economic miracle” factories are dramatically re-living “Manchesterian” working conditions of the nineteenth century. This is also the starting point for the competition amongst the world’s labour force, the lowering of wages not only for those with few qualifications. Moreover the whole planet is threatened with the nightmare of ecological catastrophe, a direct product of a mode of production whose only raison d’etre is profit.

In the strictly economic sector capital engages in increasingly risky speculative manoeuvres in its agonising search for extra-profits, something it is perennially obliged to do as it seeks to continue to exist with its own contradictions. And when the speculative balloons burst, wiping out billions of dollars of fictitious capital in the space of a few hours, it tries to make the small saver pay, with all the behaviour of financial con-men selling their financial products as sound investments when they are only stinking rubbish. Speculation and parasitism are the characteristics of this asphyxiating capitalism. The worse its contradictions get, the more aggressive it becomes. There is not a market, from the commercial to the financial, from the currency markets to the trade in raw materials, which is not troubled by violent competition and which, very often, turn into acts of war which in effect take the shape of armed robbery.

Parasitism, speculation, economic and financial crises; more exploitation and less security for those who work; no security for those who are looking for work; a state of permanent war, and the creation of ever-wider layers of poverty: this is the present and the future of capitalism. Since Lenin’s time the laws of capital have advanced until today its contradictions are gigantically magnified. This is why the experience of the October Revolution - despite its defeat - remains the principal road on which the revolution of the future will have to travel.