Why We Should Study the Russian Revolution

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the October (Russian) Revolution. There will of course be dozens of articles today debating its legacy. The question for us is how do we go about remembering this day?

The fledgling socialist-like system that struggled to gain traction in the early months of the revolution is long gone, as are the memories of much of its accomplishments such as the establishment of democratic, workers control in industries around the country, the decriminalization of homosexuality, the historic advances for women, the stunning advances in science and the arts, the establishment of mass social services, etc. Of course, the stunning accomplishments of the Russian working class in 1917 and 1918 were severely curtailed by a devastating Entente invasion by more than a dozen countries (including the US), a civil war led by the deposed capitalist class and aided by outside capitalist powers, a nearly complete blockade of materials and resources in and out of the country, sabotage of machinery and production means, and a resulting famine and literal destruction of the Russian working class and productive capacity.

The destruction of the Russian working class meant that building socialism at this time in Russia was no longer possible. The Bolshevik party eventually became a substitute for a working class with no longer any capacity to run society. Moreover, the party became more and more conditioned by fighting a brutal war which led to its further separation from its roots in workers revolution.

As a result of all of these horrific conditions combined, a bureaucratic regime (resembling nothing of the early months of the revolution) rose in its place. The Soviet Union then went on for decades until the late 1980s. Successor states that have come to replace the Soviet Union are largely ambiguous to remembering this very early part of their history. While today’s capitalist Russia will likely not do much to honor this day, many left-wing groups from across the world will fill the gap.

Historically, the DSA has been a group which makes no claims to political heritage from the Bolsheviks. However, a portion of its newer members do, including many of us in Refoundation. What meaning can be taken from the Russian Revolution and this day 100 years ago when the Bolsheviks pushed aside an inept provisional government and seized power? Why should the average DSA member stop what they are doing and take some time to reflect on October and its legacy?

This day 100 years ago was a world-historic, revolutionary breakthrough for the working class like few others. Its shock wave reverberated across the world during that time. It’s hard for us to relate today, but many working class people around the world took pride in the revolution’s early months of success. This was a time when, in Trotsky’s words, we saw the, “forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny,” on the grandest scale. A poor, war ravaged, oppressed people took it upon themselves to bring the workings of their society to a halt and re-found a new society based on their mass control.

For that is what a revolution is – working class, poor, and oppressed people collectively making the radical leap from merely protesting power to seizing it for themselves. No longer protesting from the outside, demanding others change the world, they take on the burden and responsibility of changing it themselves.

So, why don’t some of us study the Russian Revolution? We know how this story ends – a tyranny so much worst than the most vile dreams of any Tsar. But as the great French/Russian Communist/Anarchist Victor Serge said, “It is often said that ‘the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning’. Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not to forget it. To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in the corpse — and which he may have carried in him since his birth — is that very sensible?”

There were many possibilities on that cold day in October/November, 100 years ago, and half a world away. Things couldn’t go on as they were. The war needed to end, the farmers needed land, the people needed bread, the right-wing social democrats running the country into the ground needed to take a hike, and the organized workers needed to take on the responsibility of running things for themselves. The Bolsheviks chose to seize the chance and hope the rest of the world would come in to join their experiment. It could have ended so much more beautifully, but it didn’t.

On the one hand, Germany, a country which was more productively advanced and developed, also experienced workers revolts during the same time. The Bolsheviks were counting on a successful workers revolution in Germany in order to push their revolution forward. But as the German workers uprisings were eventually smashed by the precursor to the Nazis and complicit, right-wing social democrats, the Russian working class – key to the building of an actual socialist society – was demolished.

Can we blame them for trying? And by blaming them for trying, don’t we also undermine our own opportunity to try as well? Because that is truly why you should study the October Revolution. It gives you hope. If you fully study and understand what happened in those early days, weeks, and months, you will have nothing but hope.

We live in terrible times. The empire around us is crumbling, society is decaying, our rulers are half evil and half incompetent, and no one above is showing us a way out of the darkness. Things can’t go on like this. It is of course far too easy to paint historical analogies when in truth the October Revolution will never happen again. There will never be an exact play by play reenactment of the revolutionary party winning over the masses, of workers councils assuming the levers of societal maintenance, of competing duel powers between the old and the new, all coming to a head, in a final cataclysmic seizing of the Winter Palace. That all won’t happen again. But certain elements might. And we’ll see entirely new and unforeseen elements that fit today’s conditions.

There are lessons in the history that can be gleamed and learned. Lessons about reading a situation, of knowing when to swim with and against the stream, of the importance of having your organizational shit together, of having strong and defensible principles, of how to operate politically and democratically in confusing times, and more. But most of all, the trans-historical lesson to take from the October Revolution is that working people don’t need the capitalist ruling class of this world. If we have the will and confidence, we can do it ourselves, no matter the risks.

Below is a short reading list of books on the Russian Revolution that we highly recommend:

  • October: the Story of the Russian Revolution by China Mieville
  • History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky
  • Year One of the Russian Revolution by Victor Serge
  • Six Months in Red Russia by Louise Bryant
  • Ten Days that Shook the World by John Reed
  • Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory by Kevin Murphy

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