The received wisdom of capitalism is that progressive reforms are gradually won as ideas slowly evolve and enlightened leaders gain positions of power. The 1917 Russian Revolution provided an entirely different model of social change—one in which revolutionary workers radically changed the society around them almost overnight through their own collective action.
Through strikes, demonstrations and mass action, workers first overthrew Russia’s monarchy in February 1917. Then, nine months later, they overthrew its capitalist class, replacing it with democratic structures of workers' power, known as soviets.
At the centre of the revolution was the Bolshevik party, described by Victor Serge in his eyewitness account Year One of the Russian Revolution as “the nervous system of the class”. The radical Bolsheviks fought to unite all the oppressed in the struggle against their common oppressors, and then to challenge centuries-long discriminatory practices once the fledgling workers’ state was established.
Indeed, during the first day of workers' power, a series of decrees began to reshape society. Russia withdrew from World War I—the revolutionaries understood it was a bosses’ war paid for with the blood of workers and peasants. Land ownership was transferred from wealthy landlords to peasant committees, and the nations oppressed by the Russian empire were granted the right to self-determination. Life in the cities and towns also changed—workers’ control of production was codified in law, and repressive social ideas and practices were challenged in workplaces, homes and public spaces.
Capitalism imbues workers with a sense of powerlessness: they’re deprived of any control over society, which discourages them from imagining a radically different world. Bigoted ideas, including racism and sexism, are normalised through the powerful structures of capitalism, including the education system and media. These ideas help maintain ruling-class power by dividing workers and the oppressed into separate, counterposed social categories. But united struggle in the Russian Revolution began rapidly to transform the ideas that workers held about themselves and others.
In his book on workers’ democracy during the revolution, Oskar Anweiler described the lead-up to the final seizure of power: “In the Russian provinces the revolution had destroyed the old administration. Czarist officials, from provincial governor down to the lowliest village policeman, were deposed within a few days or weeks, and some were arrested ... the most diverse public and semi-public organizations arose in cities and towns in the form of existing self-governmental bodies or on an ad hoc basis”. Through dealing with the strategic questions that the revolution posed, the workers gained confidence in their ability to run society themselves, and learnt they didn’t need to rely on the elite.
Following the insurrection of October 1917, when the Bolshevik party overthrew the existing government and seized power for the working class, the radical ideas that had taken hold of the workers during the revolutionary process began to shape a new society. One of the biggest transformations concerned the place of women.
Prior to the revolution, Rabotnitsa, a working women’s newspaper, described life for working-class women bearing a double burden of never-ending housework alongside 12-hour working days:
“Exhausted, sick from unhealthy, endless mill work, knowing no peace at home, from morning to night, day in and day out, month after month, the worker mother drudges and knows only need, only worry and grief. Her life passes in gloom, without light ... And she dies having known no happiness in life; she perishes like a broken young tree.”
But during the revolution, working-class women changed. Collectively, they took history into their hands and began to mould it. It was women workers who sparked the revolution, marching from their factories on International Women’s Day in 1917 to take over the streets and demand that men join them. They joined in debates in their workplaces and in the streets, a world away from the drudgery of family life. A woman at the Treugol’nik Rubber Factory recalled the transformation in an account reproduced in David Mandel’s social history of the revolution:
“I can’t express my joy ... I considered myself lost forever at the boss’s factory. And suddenly I was resurrected, I grew up. That night I put on Russian boots and my husband’s cap, a worker’s overcoat. I said farewell to my children and left. I didn’t appear at home for four days, until March 2. My family thought I had been killed.”
Immediately after the workers’ seizure of power, it became illegal to fire pregnant women, and women were granted equal pay and legal freedom of choice over their jobs. The Family Code, implemented in 1918, legalised divorce and gave official status to de facto relationships, removing the church from marriage. The code removed the legal inequalities between children born in and out of wedlock, and pushed men to provide child support for children they had fathered outside of marriage. Homosexuality was decriminalised, and debates opened up about issues of gender and sexuality. Restrictions on abortion were lifted in 1920.
The revolutionaries understood that they could not end women’s oppression with the stroke of a pen. Legal measures were accompanied by practical changes. Working rights, for example, were accompanied by a mass state-run nursery program, an attempt to ensure that women would not remain trapped in the home through lack of access to childcare.
In 1920, Lenin wrote an address to working women in which he argued, “It is a far cry from equality in law to equality in life. We want women workers to achieve equality with men workers not only in law, but in life as well. For this, it is essential that women workers take an increasing part in the administration of public enterprises and in the administration of the state”. The party urged workers to elect women into soviets, and argued for women to take an increasing role in political life.
Restructuring society in a progressive way necessarily meant taking on the Orthodox Church, a bulwark of conservatism. The Orthodox Church had previously had immense power in society and the state, while the empire’s many religious minorities were oppressed and persecuted. The Bolshevik approach was designed to remove the privileges and power of the church, while lifting the oppression of the persecuted religious groupings and allowing them freedom of religious expression. Along with cutting out the Orthodox Church from administration over family life and schooling, the Bolsheviks stripped it of its assets, repurposing many of its buildings as public infrastructure. In a statement “To all the Muslim workers of Russia and the East”, issued on 24 November 1917, the new Soviet government wrote: “Muslims of Russia ... all you whose mosques and prayer houses have been destroyed, whose beliefs and customs have been trampled upon by the tsars and oppressors of Russia: your beliefs and practices, your national and cultural institutions are forever free and inviolate”.
Mosques were given freedom to operate, and religious expression allowed. Native languages began to be spoken and taught in schools, and used in official government documents, challenging the Russian chauvinism that had previously dominated. Universities were established to train non-Russians in technical skills, and people from the many indigenous and nationally oppressed populations were given prioritised access to employment. Alongside this, sacred objects that had been looted by the previous despotic rulers from Islamic societies were returned, and Friday was declared a national “day of rest”.
Like everyone else, Muslims were politicised by the revolution. In May 1917, the First All-Russian Congress of Muslims voted for an eight-hour working day, the abolition of private landed property and equality of political rights for women. Large numbers of Muslims joined the Bolshevik party, particularly Jadids, who represented a liberal intellectual current within Central Asian Islam. While researching the relationship between the Bolsheviks and Islam, Dave Crouch discovered that “there was widespread discussion among Muslims of the similarity of Islamic values with socialist principles”.
This tendency to radicalise and to develop more left-wing intellectual currents extended beyond Muslims. During the revolution, Bolshevik intellectuals and workers had established late-night literacy lessons for workers. S.V. Malyshev, secretary of the revolutionary newspaper Pravda, described the lives of the new generation of worker intellectuals:
“We had never been able to go to school. We were all semi-literate Bolsheviks—we all put off studying until we were imprisoned, as we nearly always were. There, day after day, we wrote out declensions, verbs, subordinate clauses and participles. When we were released from prison, we sat down at a secretary’s or editor’s desk on party orders.” It was these newly literate Bolshevik workers who prepared other workers’ articles for print, and encouraged others to write.
When the Bolsheviks seized power, the revolutionary state implemented mass literacy programs across the country. These drew workers and peasants into public life. Schooling for children was reorganised “to place the administration of popular education completely and immediately in the hands of the people”, in the words of Nadezhda Krupskaya, a Bolshevik who helped shape educational policy.
The revolutionary state also began to transform the medical system. A recruitment drive for new nurses was launched and new forms of nursing such as “visiting nurses” were created, as Susan Grant documents in her essay “Nursing and the Public Health Legacies of the Russian Revolution”. The Commissariat of Public Health attempted to transform nursing from a role largely connected to charity and religious organisations into a respected working role grounded in science. Nurses began to be educated to a cultural and technical level that would make them equal to other highly skilled workers. The new state introduced specialised training for nurses in hospitals and for those nursing in factories and in the countryside.
The revolution brought about deep structural changes and demonstrated how dramatically oppression can be challenged once workers get a sense of the power that comes from unity. The gains that the Bolsheviks made, however, were limited by the dire straits that the revolution found itself in. Capitalist nations across the world waged war on the Russian workers, and the failure of revolutions in neighbouring countries left the revolution isolated.
Without support from outside Russia, a period of capitalist restoration began under the rule of Stalin and his lackeys. In his book The Revolution Betrayed, Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky documented the reversal of many of the gains that the revolution had made in women’s lives, workers’ democracy and the attitude of the state to national minorities. In 1936, Stalin’s government introduced legislation banning abortion in almost all cases and restricted the right to divorce. Capitalism breeds and requires oppression, and so as it restored itself in Russia, the old oppressive social structures and ideas also returned.
But at its pinnacle, the revolution demonstrated the scale of the changes that revolutions can produce. As Trotsky wrote, socialists’ “highest goal is to free finally and once for all the creative forces of mankind from all pressure, limitation and humiliating dependence”. The Russian Revolution gave us valuable evidence that this is possible.
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