This is my second post the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The first can be found here.
Left wing journalist and commentator James Butler said that the legacy of the Russian Revolution was that it shows that revolution is possible. Although, he did add that it's unlikely that we would see one in Britain any time soon. The other legacy of the Russian Revolution is that it shows how revolutions can go wrong. It shows how hope for a better world can turn into brutal oppression.
One thing that made Revolution possible in Russia, when it had not occurred in the other industrial nations of Europe, was the ease with which the ideas of Marxist class struggle were adopted into politics of Russia. There was already an idea of “us” and “them” in Russian politics that came from the division throughout most of Russian history between a large class peasants and a few wealthy landowners; a division that carried over into industrial relations as Russia urbanised and led to Russia being the most strike prone nation in Europe in the early part of the Twentieth Century.
When factory owners called the police or sent in Cossacks to break up strikes (by killing and maiming strikers), the result was that workers saw bosses and the apparatus of the state as different arms of the same system of oppression. This further spread Marxist ideas about class struggle. The Revolution was possible in Russia because of the belief in Marxist ideas that were widely adopted in Russia, more so than elsewhere in Europe. The lessons for the left here is to work with existing struggles to spread Marxist ideas.
The revolution fundamentally changed how Bolsheviks saw the state as the means to achieve their goals. Before the October Revolution, it was believed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, in alignment with Marxist doctrine, that the state was something that would wither away under socialism. After the Russian Civil War, they believed they could use the state to create socialism. This has led to a lot of radical left regimes, from China to Venezuela, being infatuated with state power and attempting to create a top down model of socialism.
A revolution needs to be radically democratic as well as socially and economically radical. It should bring more power to people, not just change who is at the top of an oppressive regime of state terror, as the Russian Revolution did. If the left wants to achieve anything then it must break up centres of power and to give people more control over their lives. The state as it is currently constructed is not the means to achieve socialism. We need to make it more democratic first
The relationship between the Bolsheviks and the different nationalities that made up Imperial Russia is complicated. In some cases the struggle for national autonomy dovetailed with the struggle against the Tsar; in other places Bolsheviks and nationalists were bitterly opposed.
The left has a complex relationship with other causes and sometimes shows outright hostility to other causes or considers them a distraction to the "real" fight. The left works best when we are united with others fighting injustice. They left needs to take on other causes of people who want to change the world for the better and are fighting oppression, from feminists to environmentalist, as the Bolsheviks failed to do with the nationalists of the Russian Empire.
The American politician Mario Cuomo said: “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Although most people know that line from The West Wing. It is even more true for revolutions, as it is for peaceful transfers of power. It is the poetry of the revolution that moves people to overthrow an old regime, however, once the new regime is established idealism often gives way to practicality. After the American Revolution the Founding Fathers argued about a debut union between the states. After the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks established War Communism to fight the Russian Civil War.
War Communism imposed a huge cost on the Russian people. Many died fighting the war, but many more died of disease and starvation. Political terror was used as an instrument of the state and many were violently oppressed. The Kronstadt sailors, who were amongst the most radical of the military units that supported the Revolution, rebelled against it. The garrison of the small naval training fort near St Petersburg had thrown off its oppressive officers and mutinied at the outbreak of the February Revolution. The Kronstadt War Communism rebellion was crushed by Lenin and the Red Army. With the Kronstadt died the utopian hopes of the Revolution, as the Bolsheviks turned against some of their most idealistic early supporters.
Was it necessary to impose War Communism and terror to defeat the White Army and protect the Revolution? It would take a whole book to answer that question fully, but what I will say is that being in power is different to leading a revolution. When you enter power the complexities of the world have to be reckoned with. They are rarely as simple as the poetry of campaigning and this is something the left continues to struggle with.
The Bolsheviks had an idealistic vision of transforming Russia not only into a modern industrial power, but also into a state run for the benefit of all, not just the rich and powerful. They wanted to throw of Russia’s Russianness (the problems of huge distances, harsh climates, scarcity, different cultures in the same nation) as they felt it was holding them back. Over time these factors made themselves more felt and the Bolsheviks couldn’t change the Russianess of Russia. In the end, rather than changing Russia with Communism, Communism and Russia melded into a synthesis of the two and the ideal of transforming society was completely lost.
Between 1917 and 1991 many millions of people were killed by the Russian state, either through its many waves of political terror or mismanagement that lead to starvation and disease. It cannot be understated how many people died and there is no justifying death on such a scale.
No amount of difficult circumstances or complicating factors can excuse what happened. The particular authoritarian strain of Communism created by Lenin - which is for most people (bar a very few geeky, bookish far left types like myself) synonymous with Communism - has coloured left wing revolutions since and underpinned tyrannies from Poland to Cambodia.
We need to make sure this doesn’t happen again and the way to do this to understand what happened. Every socialist should read about the history of the Russian Revolution and try to reach their own opinions about what happened and its legacy. What I have offered here is my opinion.
It is the work of every socialist to try to understand and learn from our own history. That way we can, hopefully, one day realise the idealistic dreams that our movement is built on.