October 2017 marks the centenary of one of those landmark developments that have shaped and influenced the course of human history. We are talking of a whole series of events which culminated in the October Revolution in Russia, well depicted by John Reed as the “100 days that shook the world”.
It is a privilege for us to be part of the celebrations of such a great event, knowing that these are being held worldwide. While we are aware that at this very moment, others still are reducing these events to “an accident in history that has caused more harm than good”, we are celebrating a revolution that has transformed the whole political, economic, social and ideological landscapes at planetary level.
Why are we celebrating? And what are we celebrating?
To better answer these questions, we will try and “rewind” backwards to 100 years ago. To see the whole context in which these events took place. And to better seize their historical significance.
The world in 1917: political systems
Where did the world stand in 1917 in terms of dominant prevailing political systems?
The dominant political system at the time, including in Russia, was the feudal model of monarchy with kings, queens and emperors reigning. In Russia, an emperor (“Tsar”) held all powers. We are talking of an autocratic system of government which concentrated all political powers in the hands of an all-powerful King and Emperor. The opposite of democracy. There was no limit to the power of kings and emperors. There was no constitution either that would later in history lay down limits and parameters to political powers.
Did we have democratic systems of government in other countries at the time?
Yes, although not overwhelmingly. At that same time, in the more advanced countries, viz England or Germany, there had evolved various forms of representative government based on assemblies of representatives (eg House of Commons in England or “Diet” in Germany). The extent of their powers varied and they were not extensive. Suffice it to say that they represented a leap forward from autocratic monarchic rule. However, they were not yet based on the universal right to vote.
Then, in that setup, during the mass mobilizations leading to the October Revolution, there began to evolve a superior form of democracy. And this happened at grass-roots level. This was through the so-called “Soviets”, which were elected assemblies of workers, peasants and soldiers. The way they functioned surpassed any existing form of representative government in terms of democracy and empowerment. Not only in 1917. But even comparing them to 2017! They showed to the whole world that a system far superior to any existing political system was possible, even superior to the then more advanced parliamentary-type democracies. Even superior to parliamentary systems prevailing today, in 2017! One can imagine that was, in 1917, a huge leap forward in the history of political systems. A giant step!
What about the social and economic structures?
The world in 1917: economic and social structures
In many parts of the world, including in Russia, we had a so-called “feudal” system run by very large landowners who owned big domains and vast stretches of land. The land was cultivated by so-called “serfs” who, in return for physical protection provided by their “masters”, took care of the land. They could not own the land they were cultivating, did not benefit from it, and did not enjoy any right over it whatsoever. In terms of their status, the only difference from slavery is that they could not be sold nor freely killed. However, they were literally accessories to the land, so that if a landowner sold a stretch of land, the “serfs” were also part of the deal, part of the sold item, they went together with the land. Not slavery per se but almost there. In Russia, although “serfdom” was officially abolished in 1861, the status of the released peasants was hardly better than before given the various hardships they were subject to, a situation made even worse by requisitioning of agricultural produce during the Great War (First World War), which had started in 1914.In Russia, alongside the above feudal system, the years before 1917 had also seen a wave of industrial development with large industrial sites attracting workers from urban areas as well as indebted peasants from the countryside. This meant that, alongside a still predominantly feudal structure coexisted a rapidly growing capitalist structure with salaried workers selling their labor force to capitalist owners of factories and industrial sites.
And in that setup, we witness a revolution that set out to challenge both feudalism and capitalism as economic and social structures. That revolution was spearheaded by the working class (“proletariat”) taking the lead of an alliance of all oppressed classes, namely peasants and military workers or soldiers. The October Revolution in Russia in 1917 was to be the first-ever conscious revolution by the working class in history.
And it succeeded in toppling the existing political, social and economic structure. To be replaced by what? By a superior system where those who produce wealth take control over the means of production and distribution. How? Through a workers’ state, which took control over the means of production, abolished large private property, and set up workers’ control over all aspects of production, distribution and administration.
In the countryside, a decree on Land established that land would henceforth be owned by those who labored it. Large private property was abolished, and the revolutionary demand for “Land to the peasants” became reality. The feudal system dominated by large landlords and which maintained millions of individuals in quasi-slavery was relegated to history.
A qualitative leap
The revolution was not only political and in the social and economic spheres. It was also ideological. The Russian Revolution revolutionized the whole structure of ideas and ways of thinking on society.
It set aside once and for all the pre-conceived biased assumption that the working class was not apt for running an enterprise, for elaborating, implementing and monitoring plans at enterprise, regional/local and even country levels; for seizing power and initiating change for the whole of society; for ruling.
The Russian Revolution propelled us several “gears” in advance. In a nutshell, from the quasi-slavery mindset, through commodity-labor to working-class rule.
The Revolution also meant quite a number of pioneering measures taken by the new revolutionary regime, although the ‘bourgeois’ media has throughout ensured that these are not public knowledge. To name but a few:
(a) Right to vote for adults (both men and women) at national elections. We only saw the advent of this kind of democracy in a country like France after 1945.
(b) Equal rights in law for men and women alike, including on matters pertaining to marriage and divorce. In France, this only happened in the 1960’s.
(c) Right to terminate unwanted pregnancy (abortion rights), already in 1922.
(d) The new revolutionary Bolshevik regime put in place what was to become the first comprehensive social protection system ever. All social protection systems throughout history, including the “welfare state” concept, were either copied or derived from that original version, in revolutionary Russia.
Also, the decades following the Revolution saw significant leaps forward never seen before in the fields of education, adult literacy, cultural and artistic development, health, science, technology, research and space discovery.
However, capitalist propaganda meant that these had to remain almost hidden. And still do remain hidden. And if some of the art is recognized as way ahead of its time and breaking out of old structures, the capitalist propaganda still denies that this was directly the result of the liberation that the revolution brought in.
Capitalist propaganda also meant applauding the fall of the “Berlin Wall” in 1989 as representing the supposed “fall of communism” and the mark of “defeat of socialist ideology”. It served as an argument for some trying to showcase the alleged definite superiority of the capitalist system, even going as far as claiming it was the “end of history”.
This obliterated two important aspects:
(1) The political, economic and social structures in the “Soviet union” and its allies in Eastern Europe, by that time, were far from representing socialism or communism. They had attempted to bring in socialism, but under constant siege, the USSR ended up representing a deviation from, a perversion of socialism, not socialism.
(2) What has happened to the supposed “superior” capitalist system later on, down the line? It is embroiled in multiple, interwoven crises, one after the other and across the board. Financial crisis. Economic and social crisis. Environmental crisis. Even military escalation already wreaking havoc, and now actually threatening to destroy our planet.
Proud to celebrate
All this only serves to highlight the urgent need to put on the agenda the fight for socialism, for collective control by the working class over the means of production and distribution, for direct participative democracy by the working majority that will go beyond the limited parliamentary system.
There is a better, superior economic and social system than capitalism. There is a better, superior political system than the present limited parliamentary system. The Russian Revolution has shown its potential to the world. In Mauritius, those activists, trade unionists and workers who participated in the mass mobilizations and working class organization which were part of the August 1979 and September 1980 strike movements had first-hand experience of that type of democracy. It is our duty to keep alive that spark, and its sparkle, and to ensure the transmission of collective experience and knowledge garnered to date.
The Russian Revolution holds an all-important place in the collective historical legacy of working class experience, and of knowledge of the fight for socialism and workers’ democracy. All the subsequent struggles throughout history the world over continuously add to this experience and knowledge.
We are proud to be part of that legacy. And we are proud to celebrate.
Article by Tony, based on his speech for 8 October, 2017 celebrations