The Day the World Turned Upside-down


10-24-07, 12:55 pm

At 10 am on October 25 1917, an appeal 'To the Citizens of Russia!' was published in the Russian capital Petrograd. It proclaimed: 'The provisional government has been deposed. State power has passed into the hands of the organ of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies - the Revolutionary Military Committee, which heads the Petrograd proletariat and the garrison.'

'The cause for which the people have fought, namely, the immediate offer of a democratic peace, the abolition of landed proprietorship, workers' control over production and the establishment of Soviet power - this cause has been secured.'

Later that afternoon, Lenin addressed the Petrograd Soviet in the Smolny Institute, once an exclusive school for young ladies but then the headquarters of the revolution.

Shortly after midnight, revolutionary soldiers and sailors captured the Winter Palace, the seat of Alexander Kerensky's provisional government.

Kerensky had taken the post of prime minister five months after the revolution of February 1917 which effectively toppled Tsar Nicholas II. A petty bourgeois liberal, Kerensky had pledged to bring Russia out of the war against the Prussian and Austro-Hungarian empires, organize free elections to the Duma (parliament) and redistribute land to the starving peasantry.

But, under pressure from French and British allies, he had maintained hostilities even as his armies melted away in the teeth of Germany's sweeping incursions. The British ambassador in Petrograd - which was later renamed Leningrad before reverting to St Petersburg - cabled home to predict that the Bolsheviks' revolution would collapse within two months.

As for the revolutionary government headed by Lenin, it immediately set about fulfilling its promises to bring 'Peace, Bread and Land.' The very first decree called for an immediate armistice and negotiations for a 'just, democratic peace.'

Others set up a Red Army of workers and peasants, transferred agricultural and church estates to local soviets of peasants' deputies, instituted workers' control in all economic enterprises, nationalized the banks, canceled all debts to foreign financiers, proclaimed equality between nationalities based on a 'voluntary union' and relinquished all Russian claims on Finland, Persia and Armenia.

But, from the outset, forces loyal to previous bourgeois and Tsarist regimes - the 'Whites' - mounted a military rebellion against Soviet rule. They were assisted by breakaway nationalist movements and, notably in the Ukraine, by anarchists.

In response, the new Soviet state established its own security police, the Cheka. Far from being the 'secret' police of Western propaganda - and wholly unlike the security and intelligence services in Britain - the formation of the Cheka and its role were set out openly in legislation.

In the course of 1918, too, some 14 foreign armies and more than half a million troops set up a 'ring of fire' around Russia and its neighboring territories. The aim was, as Britain's Minister of Munitions Winston Churchill put it, to 'strangle the Bolshevik baby in its cradle.'

Much of Tsarist Russia's industrialization had been funded by loans and investments from France, Britain and other Western capitalist sources.

These bankers and industrialists wanted to retain control of their capital.

Nonetheless, Russia in 1917 was still primarily an agricultural society. Four-fifths of its population were peasants, many of whom had been born before the abolition of serfdom.

The vast majority of the rural population were unschooled and illiterate, kept in ignorance and superstition by the Russian Orthodox church.

Private armies such as the Black Hundreds, sponsored by landowners, military officers and church and state officials, helped Tsarist soldiers and police to crush all dissent. Their favorite targets were petty bourgeois radicals, workers' organizers, anarchists and - above all - Jews.

This was the old Russia that Lenin, the Bolsheviks and other left-wing forces wanted to abolish. Indeed, the new Soviet government was swiftly broadened to include leftwingers from the Party of Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks, at least until their parties turned against the revolution.

From early 1918 until the end of 1920, the Red Army fought a life-and-death struggle against the Whites and foreign armies.

The country's agricultural, industrial and financial resources were taken into state ownership or control in a desperate policy of 'war communism.'

While the Reds aimed their coercive power mostly at counter-revolutionaries, saboteurs and hoarders, the Whites utilized their terror with little or no discrimination. US commander-in-chief in Siberia General Graves was shocked to witness the mass unpopularity of the White forces, the disciplinary floggings and shootings of hungry soldiers and the corruption and debauchery of their officers.

He also recorded that 'a White terror was inaugurated, far worse than anything perpetrated by the Reds. Socialists of any kind, even liberals and democrats, were slaughtered in thousands.'

Graves wrote of one village on the river Amur where the White authorities 'encircled the place with White troops; a hole was made in the ice on the river and the entire population driven under the ice.'

More than 20,000 British naval and land forces helped seize the Black Sea ports, including Odessa and Sevastopol, Trans-Caucasian oil towns such as Baku and Tblisi and then the Baltic approaches to Petrograd through Riga and Tallinn.

Other British expeditionary forces occupied the Arctic ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, while British officers, advisors and intelligence agents assisted numerous counter-revolutionary forces and regimes in other parts of the former Russian empire.

From this brutal, sordid reality is spun the history of dashing Russian aristocrats and their tragic daughters, of wistful emigres and daring British spies.

The real history of predatory British intervention rarely features in the history books. Nor does the struggle in Britain itself against the invasion and occupation of Russia, involving as it did widespread mutinies in the British armed forces, the Hands Off Russia campaign and the threat of a general strike supported by the TUC and the Labour Party in August 1920.

By late 1921, the Whites and the foreign armies had either withdrawn or been defeated. Soviet Russia had survived and the Reds had also emerged victorious in Ukraine, Georgia and other states.

But the embryonic Union of Soviet Socialist Republics faced economic and social ruin. War, sabotage - and, in Ukraine, the breadbasket of imperial Russia, famine - had laid waste to large sections of industry, commerce and agriculture.

Tragically, a revolt by the 'red sailors' of Kronstadt against the political dictatorship of war communism had to be put down by force.

It was at this juncture, too, that Lenin turned to limited private enterprise, including finance and technology from Western capitalist entrepreneurs, markets and the cash nexus to shock the Soviet economy back into life.

Although the New Economic Policy also sparked terrorist opposition from the far left - necessitating the suppression of the Social Revolutionaries - it saved the young Soviet state from extinction.

Moreover, it paved the way for the 'great leap forward' of the late 1920s. The first five-year plan imposed centralised economic planning based on large-scale public ownership to almost double national income, coal, oil, iron, electricity and consumer goods production within the four-and-a-quarter years to December 1932.

The industrial workforce doubled in size and machinery output more than trebled. But agricultural expansion fell well short of the targets.

The transformation of agriculture from peasant and smallholder production to state-run collective farms had unleashed class war in the countryside against the kulaks (rich peasants). The resulting chaos, sabotage and dislocation exacerbated more famines in 1932 and 1933.

The debate as to whether collectivization was carried out at the right pace and in the right way still rumbles on.

Many peasants at every level paid a terrible price for collectivization and industrialization.

Yet this new industrial and agricultural base enabled the Soviet Union to carry through a program of modernization unequaled in history - and without the benefit of a slave trade or an empire.

The lives of hundreds of millions of people were transformed by power, transport, housing, health and education provisions on a vast scale. Civic amenities sprang up for the first time. The frontiers of science were extended in dramatic fashion. Women threw off many of the shackles forged by feudal and religious customs and beliefs.

More than a hundred nationalities joined together in the greatest multi-ethnic experiment of the 20th century. Previously, whole national languages and cultures had been suppressed in the Tsarist 'prison-house of nations.' Lenin himself had drafted bills to put before the old Duma seeking equal status for all languages and outlawing anti-Semitism.

Soviet industrialization and modernization also made possible the Red Army's defeat of fascism in the second world war, thereby saving the European continent - and quite possibly the world - from decades if not centuries of unprecedented tyranny and genocide.

Four-fifths of all the fighting and four-fifths of all the casualties occurred on the eastern front, in the titanic struggle between the Soviet Red Army and nazi Germany and its allies. Some 26 million Soviet citizens lost their lives.

If the Soviet Union had done nothing else in its history but defeat fascism, it would deserve to be celebrated every year on the anniversary of its revolutionary birth.

But its achievements continued after the war, in the great reconstruction of thousands of cities, towns and villages, in science, space exploration, medicine, the arts and sport.

While trying to keep up with the US and its allies in the arms race, the Soviet Union frequently proposed nuclear arms control measures - most of them rebuffed. In initiating and securing the policy of 'peaceful co-existence,' it curbed the most aggressive tendencies within the imperialist camp.

This did not stop the major capitalist powers killing millions of people in Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia or imposing a new neoimperialist order on former colonies. Yet national liberation movements around the world received invaluable assistance from the Soviet Union and its socialist allies.

Were we to draw up a balance sheet, the positive features of the Soviet Union would far outweigh the negative ones. But we must learn the lessons from the socialist system's downfall between 1988 and 1991.

Certainly, the problems and weaknesses of the Soviet Union had their origins decades earlier.

From 1917, the young Soviet state had to try to build socialism in an underdeveloped semi-capitalist, semi-feudal empire.

Second, it had to attempt this task while surrounded by hostile imperialist powers which inflicted on the Soviet Union the war of intervention, fascist invasion from 1941 and the cold war from 1945.

From its inception, the Soviet Union needed to industrialise ruthlessly and to guard against counter-revolution. But what emerged was a top-down bureaucratic command structure which increasingly excluded the masses of working people from decision-making and power.

The apparatus of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union became integrated into the machinery of the state, with the leading role of the party written into the country's constitution.

The party determined appointments and policies at every level of the state apparatus. It had no need to campaign for its positions within the working class and its organisations at election or any other time.

Instead, it became a bureaucratic-centralist machine staffed by conformists and careerists, ruling over the people and not with them. The result was that, when the system began to falter in the Soviet Union, the masses of working people did not rally to defend socialism. They did not regard it as being their system to defend.

In the economic sphere, a combination of idealism, dedication and economic planning produced rates of economic growth up to twice and even three times those of advanced capitalist countries.

But, from the late 1950s, the level of investment growth began to fall. Economic output growth rates declined dramatically from 1960 as the technological gap between the Soviet Union and the developed capitalist economies widened.

Fundamental problems of how to secure innovation, apply new technology and raise labour productivity in a humane society committed to full employment were not solved.

After the second world war, not surprisingly, the Soviet Union sought to match the military might of the imperialist powers. In capitalist society, an arms race is good for profits. It maintains economic demand and jobs in the economy.

But, under socialism, it is a drain on resources which could otherwise be utilised and developed elsewhere.

Nor was Marxism vigorously applied to understand and solve the problems of building socialism, with all the clashes of viewpoint that characterise genuinely free Marxist debate.

Rather, Marxism-Leninism was distorted into a dogma.

It became associated in many people's minds with slogans, formulations and devices to glorify and misrepresent the failing status quo.

Critical thinking, experimentation and nonconformity were discouraged on a wider scale too, as Soviet culture lost much of its vitality.

There were also serious deficiencies in the treatment of vital democratic questions. Lenin's advice to compensate the small nationalities for the historical injustices suffered at the hands of Great Russian chauvinism was not heeded.

As the party exercised ever-tighter centralised control over the constituent republics, regions and areas, Stalin's Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic - the 'autonomisation' rejected by Lenin - was established in deeds if not in words.

The democratic rights and patriotic feelings of numerous nationalities were violated by forced transfers of territory and population, by processes of 'Russification' and the restoration of the symbols, 'heroes' and insignia of imperial Russia.

Nor did Soviet laws and proclamations on the equality of the sexes fully reflect reality. Women entered education and work on a mass scale, but they were not liberated from the burdens of unplanned pregnancy and the drudgery of housework.

The relatively high proportion of women in parliamentary forums did not progress to the highest levels. The top party and state leadership was almost entirely male right to the end.

Professions where women made much more headway than in capitalist countries - in scientific and educational work, for example - lost some of their status and income differentials as a consequence.

Therefore, a potentially dynamic force for the defence of socialism - women - was never fully developed.

The opening up of CPSU, Comintern and Soviet state archives provides a mass of uncontestable evidence that enormous and brutal crimes were committed by the party and state leadership in the 1930s and 1940s. Stalin bore a heavy and direct personal responsibility for many of them and most of the victims were loyal communists and Soviet citizens.

The archives also explode anti-communist lies that the Stalin regime and communism killed tens of millions of people through deliberate famine, extermination, purges and in the gulag labour camps.

But the true number of executions in the late 1930s - in hundreds of thousands - is shocking enough and requires explanation and condemnation, not denial and concealment.

These blots on communism's proud record around the world are overshadowed by the crimes of capitalism and imperialism - slavery and the slave trade, brutal industrialisations and the oppressions of empire, world war and fascism, military dictatorships and death squads, social division and degradation, mass unemployment and Third World starvation.

In today's struggle to rid humanity of this system, what is the significance of the great October socialist revolution?

First, it should remain a source of inspiration for revolutionaries everywhere. October 1917 showed that the iron chain of imperialism can be broken at its weakest links, as happened later in China, Cuba and Vietnam. Capitalist, colonial-puppet and semi-feudal ruling classes can be overthrown.

The Soviet Union demonstrated that a new, modern, civilised and multinational society could be constructed on the basis of economic planning and public ownership, without capitalist exploitation.

A rich fund of experience has been accumulated with which to educate future generations of revolutionaries in the science of revolution and building socialism. In particular, a universal principle of socialist revolution - the need to involve the working class and its allies directly in the exercise of state power - has to be learnt and applied in the specific national conditions of each revolutionary process.

And the revolution gave shape and direction to the emergence of communist parties and an international communist movement which have led many of the world's greatest struggles for democratic rights, social justice and national liberation.

The emergence of mass movements around the world against imperialist war, capitalist globalisation and ecological crisis confirms Marx's dictum that capitalism creates its own gravediggers.

Within these movements, the organised working class and communist parties are once again coming to the fore.

They can and must play a leading role in making the 21st century the one in which socialism finally triumphs over moribund, corrupt, anti-human and anti-planet capitalism.

From Communist Party of Britain