Ten days that shook the world
Ninety years ago today, a remarkable series of events began in Russia that would change the course of the 20th century. The first anti-capitalist, workers’ revolution in history was set in motion. Immediately, the new government offered an armistice, carrying out its pledge to withdraw from the slaughter of the First World War.
At 10am on 7 November 1917, the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC) of the Petrograd Soviet announced the disbanding of the Provisional Government which had taken power after the overthrow of the Tsar earlier in the year but which had continued the war. The MRC’s proclamation, drawn up by Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik Party, read:
“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. Long live the revolution of workers, soldiers and peasants!”
The MRC, under the direction of the Bolshevik leader Trotsky, had carried out an insurrection in Petrograd (now St Petersburg), storming the Winter Palace and arresting the government. The next day, Lenin was elected as the Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars by the Russian Congress of Soviets which gathered in Petrograd. Soviet power then spread across Russia. Liberal and monarchist forces, “the Whites” immediately went to war against the Bolshevik’s Red Army, backed by capitalist powers around the world, including Britain.
For a period, the revolution flourished despite the deprivations of the civil war. Revolutionaries from around the world flocked to Russia to join an international movement aimed at overthrowing capitalism in each country. But the failure of the 1918-1919 German Revolution and Lenin’s untimely death in January 1924 became key factors in the rise of a reactionary bureaucracy headed by Stalin. Trotsky and the Left Opposition struggled hard for an alternative, democratic socialist course, but were defeated by the end of the 1920s. The subsequent destruction of the Bolshevik Party, the murder of its leaders in show trials and the perversion of its policies and aims were among the greatest crimes of the 20th century.
A superficial reading of the subsequent history of the 1917 revolution – promoted and perpetuated by the capitalist media and right-wing historians like Orlando Figes – frequently lumps together Bolshevism with Stalin’s reign of terror. In this way, they bury the unique achievements of the revolution and the masses and leaders who made it possible. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 is often labelled the “end of communism”.
But the truth is that Stalinism was counter-revolutionary and essentially anti-communist. Lenin and Trotsky always insisted that socialism could never be built in an isolated way in a single country and the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy, which usurped political power from the masses and created a totalitarian state, is proof of this. Gorbachev’s attempt to restore Soviet democracy and restructure the economy, heroic effort though it was, could not undo decades of backwardness or overcome the resistance of die-hard Stalinists. Their failed coup of August 1991 precipitated the collapse of the USSR later that year.
First under Yeltsin and now under Putin, Russia has reverted to a capitalism where oligarchs, who effectively stole the state assets built up during the 90 years of the USSR, hold sway. Yet while the socialist property relations established by the October Revolution have been legally abolished, the legacy of revolution lives on in other forms.
The courage and audacity of the revolutionary masses, and the ability of the Bolshevik Party to seize the time, have gone down forever as a landmark in history, proving that such a change could be made and that decisive leadership was the key. The decision to withdraw Russia from the conflict, helped to bring World War I to an end and inspired millions around the world. The Red Army’s ability to defeat the Nazi war machine in World War II – which was more significant than the fighting on the Western front - was due to the economic achievements of the revolution. The glasnost period of the 1980s opened up a new understanding of the phenomenal opposition to Stalinism.
Let American Communist John Reed, who set down the first major account of the Russian Revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World, have the last word: “It is fashionable,” he wrote in 1919 “… to speak of the Bolshevik insurrection as an ‘adventure’. Adventure it was, and one of the most marvellous mankind ever embarked upon, sweeping into history as the head of the toiling masses, and staking everything on their vast and simple desires… No matter what one thinks of Bolshevism.”
As the global economy lurches into its worst crisis since the Wall Street crash of 1929, against a background of climate chaos and military tensions, new political conditions are emerging. The need for humanity to open a new, non-capitalist chapter in history is as urgent a challenge now as it was for the Bolsheviks in 1917.
7 November 2007