Event commemorating the Russian Revolution, linking it to today's struggles, was big success for revolutionary left, reports Vladimir Unkovski-Korica
Revolution: Russia 1917 one hundred years on took place in London on Saturday 25 February.
People from all over the country packed the main lecture hall in the Rich Mix to discuss the history and relevance of the Russian Revolutions.
The day started with Feyzi Ismail reminding everyone that, on 25th February 1917, the Tsar decided to repress the general strike that had developed days earlier in solidarity with women’s demonstrations for bread in the Russian capital Petrograd.
Military units were soon going over to the demonstrators and the Tsar was forced to abdicate a week later. We were there this Saturday to celebrate the power of ordinary working class people and their ability to change the course of history.
The atmosphere was lively with music in the background and a giant screen playing footage from 1917 before the first panel and during the breaks.
Storming heaven: the power of the working class
Speakers emphasised the immense achievements of workers setting up their own institutions of power, soviets, during the toppling of the Tsar, ushering in a period of unprecedented liberty in Russia.
With none of Russia’s democratic or revolutionary parties ready for the popular outburst of discontent, it was the masses themselves that organised in the days of confusion and regime repression.
Lindsey German, Stop the War Coalition convenor, spoke of the need to recognise the importance of women to the events – as fighters at the forefront of the battle for universal freedom. She underlined however that the revolution had not come from nowhere. There had been a long build-up.
Renowned historians and activists Paul Le Blanc and August Nimtz, who had come especially for the event from the US, brought a sense of the movements that have arisen in response to Donald Trump’s reactionary presidency.
Both said that the level of mobilisation is unprecedented and akin to the 1960s. Movements today would have a lot to learn from the Russian experience.
Nimtz stated that the Bolsheviks understood democracy very well. Lenin paid a lot of attention to elections, as a way of understanding the balance of forces.
Nimtz added that it was important to understand elections in a representative democracy are about registering preferences, but that they were not about taking power. Power resides in undemocratic elites that can buy participation in elections, like in the US.
Instead, it is necessary to build a party that would enable ordinary workers to build their own organs of power.
Sharp tool: the revolutionary party
Speakers argued that ordinary political party activists had played an important role at the local level in 1917.
What revolutionaries had done before 1917 to educate workers and train experienced and rooted activists paid off when the masses moved against the Tsar and the exiled political elites were unable to respond quickly enough.
Local activists were able to rebuild party structures and channel popular discontent, reviving memories of the soviets, first set up in 1905.
Moreover, the importance of Bolsheviks before, during and after the fall of the Tsar in enabling ordinary workers to organise politically made sure the revolution did not end with the mere restoration of the old order, but a new order based on soviet power some months later.
The seizure of power as a democratic act
Speaking on Lenin’s attitude to the war, Alastair Stephens showed that the Bolsheviks were the principle party to oppose continued Russian involvement in the slaughter, a popular demand among rank-and-file soldiers.
According to Judy Cox, though it is fashionable to present October as a Bolshevik coup, the Bolsheviks on several occasions showed they were not interested in taking power for themselves. In July, workers and soldiers sick of the war effort wanted the Bolsheviks to seize power.
But the Bolsheviks refused. They even defended the Provisional Government, ruling with the soviets, despite its continuation of the Tsar’s war effort, when general Kornilov tried to take power by way of a coup. They only took power when they had a majority of the country on their side in October.
John Rees underlined that the necessity for a revolutionary party, but also of the method of the united front in the face of capitalist offensive, were the keys to change even today. Bringing together a minority of the most advanced workers to lead the majority of workers into struggle was crucial to changing their consciousness.
Mass mobilisation from below is central to breaking the power of capital. The fate of Syriza in power has shown it is not enough to take the capitalist state and use it for the people’s needs. Global capital would work against you, as it did against the Bolsheviks. Only popular mobilisation could ensure policies benefitting the majority.
Shifting, not reflecting, consciousness
Rees argued this method of organising is different to parties that try to involve the majority of workers and to reflect their current consciousness. This is the reformist method. It led to disaster for reformists in the Russian Revolution. It leads to disaster today in the form of Syriza.
Maria Nikolakaki reminded the audience that the EU itself had played a major role in crushing Greece. Its bureaucrats now even make policy for the government. Syriza did not have a strategy to defeat this, it could not magically tell workers to trust the EU one moment, and then bring the masses onto the streets the next.
Workers are taught they cannot run society and are constantly threatened with the sack. In a globalised economy, imperialist centres batter down resistance to neoliberalism at home and abroad, taking not just the resources of foreign countries but also forcing workers from their homes into the imperialist countries.
Fanning the fans of racism, they hope to divide and rule. Lucia Pradella posited the centrality of solidarity with migrants and the struggle against racism as an internationalist response to the jingoism and racism of the ruling classes across America and Europe. This is the way to fight the right, not to capitulate to racist arguments in the false belief that this could win votes from disaffected workers. Not challenging racism does not take on the structures that breed the conditions of disunity.
Radical legacies of the Russian Revolution
Chris Bambery illustrated how the Bolsheviks continued to do this in power. After they withdrew from the imperialist war, they also dismantled the Tsarist Empire and fought to include Russia’s Muslims, whom the Tsar had persecuted.
It was only under Stalin that women were forced to de-veil and that mosques were destroyed. Stalin’s counterrevolution fed on Russia’s backwardness and the failure of Western socialists, still predominantly reformist, to take power and help the Russian workers. Paul Le Blanc was adamant this was the reason for the degeneration of the revolution, not some inherent flaw in its design.
But once the party bureaucrats realised that isolation could justify their power over workers and peasants, the role of the state changed into the driver of the process of catch-up with the world economy, at the expense of ordinary people. The fall of the system decades later came at the hands of the workers themselves – like Poland’s Solidarity movement.
Yet the elites clung on and refashioned themselves the new capitalists through privatisation. Tamas Krausz, Lenin’s biographer, spoke about the dire state of Eastern Europe today. His country, Hungary, he said, is among the most reactionary in Europe. Market capitalism did not bring the solution to people’s problems. The new states, in fact, moved against movements like Solidarity.
Across the globe, the drive for profit leads to war, destruction, division and darkness. Commemorating the Russian Revolution can act as a beacon for hope in these often bleak times. As we face increasing radicalisation, building revolutionary organisations is a bold act of confidence in the future. As Paul Le Blanc pointed out, this was the great legacy of Lenin, Trotsky and Bolsheviks. He quoted Rosa Luxemburg’s famous words about the Russian Revolution:
“In the present period, when we face decisive final struggles in all the world, the most important problem of socialism was and is the burning question of our time. It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: “I have dared!””
More articles from this author
- What is Marxism? A guide to revolutionary theory - organised by Counterfire
- What can the Corbynistas learn from Syriza?
- Scottish independence: do not let the SNP squander this new opportunity
- Why we need organisation: politics and structure
- Rapidly decreasing middle ground: the Balkans and the Trump Effect
- Scotland marches against Trump
- We can't move forward if we don't understand our past