It is 100 years since the Russian Revolution, the most important event in working class history, when the workers of a country, Russia, took their country over. Albeit briefly they ran that country in their interests, and extended support to workers in other countries who wanted to do the same.
This is our chance to look at that event again, celebrate it, and think what lessons it can teach us today. Paul Vernadsky’s book The Russian Revolution: when workers took power is a useful way to do all of those things. The book includes a narrative of the revolution, a study of the Bolsheviks who organised and led the revolution, debates about issues raised in and after the revolution, and an unflinching examination of “what went wrong” — how and why the revolution was usurped by Stalinism.
The book comes with a study guide to help organise reading groups and get the most from your reading. Group discussion can lead to a greater understanding than we get from reading the book on our own. And it can lead to group action, as we organise activity inspired by the lessons we learn.
Discussing this history in groups is a practice that the Bolsheviks would recognise and applaud. The purpose — to organise a material force, a party, to give life to revolutionary ideas — was the essence of Bolshevism. The book gives an inspiring account of the evolution of the Russian communist movement before, throughout and after 1917. It explores in detail their democratic culture and their debates at home and with socialists abroad.
Those debates, far from being mere academic talking shops or intellectual posturing, prepared the Bolsheviks to organise and take action to lead the workers to power in 1917. Vernadsky addresses head on the negative impact that the strains of civil war following the revolution had on that democratic culture. He concludes, however, that there was nothing inevitable about the decay of the workers’ revolution per se, and that in other circumstances the workers taking power would not have ended in Stalinism.
The Russian Revolution was a momentous event. It inspired workers’ movements around the world. Yet today, on the 100th anniversary, you have to look hard to see it discussed anywhere. Contrast, for example, the four-year long commemoration of the First World War (which the revolution helped to end). You will not hear it said anywhere in the mainstream that the sacrifices of the revolutionary Russian workers who lost their lives in the fight for workers’ power, or in the civil war that followed, when foreign armies, including the British, invaded Russia to destroy the new Bolshevik government, benefited British workers. But they did!
The Russian workers inspired strikes, and a confidence among British workers that alarmed the rulers here enough to make concessions. Following the Bolsheviks’ example, workers in other countries built powerful communist movements. Apart from a handful of cultural exhibitions in London there are — so far — few commemorations of 1917.
That is partly deliberate, as the ruling class, through its various means of power and propaganda, promotes the idea that the Russian revolution — workers taking power — was all a horrible mistake. They ignore it or, if they talk about it, they portray it as the slaughter of the innocents, a coup against democracy, a ruthless, doomed social experiment by evil wrongdoers (the Bolsheviks) who murdered a perfectly delightful and blameless royal family into the bargain. But the fact that the centenary is not being marked is also the natural result of many people drawing the wrong lessons from 1917.
When the Stalinists overturned the benefits of the revolution, and installed a new, brutal, exploiting economic system they carried out their crimes using the signs, slogans and borrowed prestige of the Bolshevik revolution, thus tarnishing them, unfairly, for an epoch. This false representation has been passed down in historical accounts of all kinds, including those of the left.
Vernadsky’s book examines the reasons why Stalin was able to defeat the revolution: the backwardness of Russian society and its economy, the isolation of the Russian revolution after revolutions failed elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Germany, hostile armies invading during the civil war. In these circumstances, and facing poor odds, the revolution was “strangled by the rising bureaucracy inside Russia from the early 1920s”. Stalin wiped out Trotsky and his followers, and gathered to himself absolute power.
Vernadsky examines closely the mistakes the Bolsheviks made, in the context of the pressures on them, but concludes: “The party that led the 1917 revolution is still an inspiration. This was the party that could take on and defeat all enemies, internal and external, and survive the civil war. This was the party that would rancorously debate out its differences in public and with great sharpness, in order to clarify the assessment and to draw out the political conclusions. “That party along with the tradition it embodied was not finished after the civil war. Having made such a tremendous, irreplaceable contribution to the Russian working class over decades, it was entirely right for those who wanted to save the Russian revolution to seek to revive whatever could be salvaged from its ranks. There were no other forces, no other agents capable of turning the tables on the bureaucracy and on Stalin's machine at that time than the old guard of militant worker-Bolsheviks”.
Alas, the odds stacked against them were too great. After 1928, Vernadsky concludes, nothing remained of the workers’ state created by the Bolsheviks and the workers; Russia passed over to a new exploiting class system, Stalinism. The Stalinist defeat of working-class revolution, however, was not inevitable. We can study the lessons of this period in history to help us avoid the potential dangers.
Apart from a one-day event on 4 November, organised by the TUC’s Russian Revolution Centenary Committee, the labour movement itself seems reluctant or, at least, clueless as to how to remember the revolution. Why is that?
We are living in a period where the left seemed to be on the march, with the election (twice) of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. Lenin described Labour as a “bourgeois party, because although it consists of workers it is led by reactionaries, and the worst reactionaries at that, who act fully in the spirit of the bourgeoisie”. All comparisons guarded, Corbyn seemed to offer something different from that. Corbyn’s surprise win seemed to conjure up some of the Bolshevik spirit!
Yet the recent past in the Labour Party is one of democracy being severely curtailed, particularly under Tony Blair; of the party being imbued with pro-capitalist ideas, tamed, any rebellion against the Tories dampened down, made into an electoral machine, meeting the career ambitions of a few, in the service, ultimately, of capitalism. So what is possible now is being shaped by the past: bureaucratic institutional structures, past practice, inherited ideas.
We must also contend with a long legacy of fear of working-class mobilisation per se. Mainstream left politics in the UK, including in the unions, sees the goal of politics as getting Labour governments elected, or Labour political representatives elected, within a system that fears working-class mobilisation in the form of strikes and demonstrations, much less workers taking direct control of the places where they live and work, working-class rule.
The Labour Party and trade union movement have been characterised by anxiety about or outright hostility to working-class self-liberation, and to the working class gaining a sense of itself as a class which has interests different from its rulers. A working class that understands that the current economic system, capitalism, exploits it, and that resolves to change that system radically — to replace it with a system that is more politically and socially democratic and that allows each person to develop fully — socialism.
During the current left resurgence in the Labour Party, there has even been an almost superstitious distancing from “revolutionaries” as if the self-designation one gives oneself in relation to an event 100 years previous were the real dividing line in politics. Workers’ Liberty supporters have been the victims of this, with several being expelled from the Labour Party, and Workers’ Liberty has had a great deal of hostile press (with other socialists not doing enough to defend us). Many around Corbyn have tried to distinguish themselves from the “Trots”, the revolutionaries. For some this is a defence mechanism: when the right points the finger at the far-left, the unconfident say “we are not like them”, in the hope they themselves can avoid hostile scrutiny. And there are those who think a Corbyn (left)-led Labour Party can by itself bring radical change, removing the need for revolution.
They are wrong. The bourgeois state will not allow radical change by radically reforming governments, or not for long. The real dividing line in politics today is not between self-conscious revolutionaries and those who believe that capitalism is inevitable. It is between those who fight the system and those who accommodate to it. It is between those who rub up against capitalism every day and who feel and hate its effects — the exploited, the alienated, workers and their families — and those who can make their peace with the system, who will never believe in workers’ power.
The Bolsheviks believed that the workers could and should take power, that they could transform society and run it in their own interests and in the interests of all humanity, and that the very future of humanity rested on this audacious act! There are many workers, contending with the system, who don’t know this, the true history of the labour movement and the socialist tradition, who would benefit from knowing more about the Bolsheviks, about the history of the Russian revolution. This book is for them!
Inevitably, some of the hostility to commemorating 1917, the “Trot-baiting”, the witch-hunting, comes from the political heirs of the Stalinists, who, whether from thoughtless tribalism or genuine political differences, want to erase any trace of Trotsky’s legacy from the labour movement. In several chapters in his book, Vernadsky gives detail on the life and death battle between Stalin and his followers and Trotsky and his supporters.
It is ironic but not surprising that in the year when the left should most be remembering and celebrating 1917, large sections of it are afraid to. Yet socialism is an urgent necessity... and a real possibility, if we can learn lessons from socialist history, none greater than the example of the Russian revolution. If we discuss the ideas in this book, publicly and as widely as we can, we can provide a counter-argument to all of those who want to forget the revolution, bury its positive lessons, and inoculate the working class against the idea of ever taking power again. They must not succeed. We must!