When workers turned the world upside down

This year marks the centenary of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Red Flag will be running a series of pieces over the course of 2017 to commemorate the revolution and look at the insights it can give us into the struggle against capitalism today. In this article, Mick Armstrong analyses events in Russia in the broader context of upheavals across Europe and the world.

The 1917 Russian Revolution transformed world politics. For the first time ever, the mass of workers took control of society and began democratically and collectively to reshape every aspect of life for the benefit of the great majority. They created a new form of mass democracy – workers’ councils (soviets in Russian) – to replace the pseudo-democracy of the capitalist order.

The revolution took Russia out of a murderous imperialist war that had slaughtered or destroyed the lives of tens of millions. It introduced a path-breaking series of reforms in working conditions, health, education and disability rights and made major advances in the struggle for gay and women’s liberation.

But it wasn’t just in Russia that the revolution turned everything upside down. The victory of the revolution transformed world politics.

The Bolsheviks, the Russian revolutionary leaders, immediately put out a call for peace and revealed all the dirty secret treaties of the great powers. They argued for workers not to rely on the politicians and generals to end the war but to rise up against the warmongers.

By November 1917, after more than three years of war, there was a growing mood of rebellion among workers in virtually every country. The Western front had become a slaughterhouse with hundreds of thousands of lives being sacrificed on a weekly basis by the generals of all sides, in battles over a few hundred metres of devastated ground.

More and more workers were being conscripted to meet pointless deaths or permanently debilitating injuries. On the home front, drastic rationing had been introduced, and food was in short supply.

Workers were forced to work longer and longer hours in increasingly unsafe conditions. Wages had been slashed to the bone and basic working conditions undermined. To control dissent, harsh censorship had been imposed, core democratic rights removed and socialist and other opponents of the war jailed.

But none of that could stop resistance breaking out. Ireland experienced the first revolt with the Easter 1916 uprising, which was brutally repressed by British troops. Mutinies in the French army were met with a wave of executions.

In Australia, mass resistance defeated an attempt to impose conscription in 1916 and again in 1917. A tidal wave of strikes swept the country, culminating in the great mass strike of 1917 as rank and file workers took the lead, often in defiance of their union officials. German workers were also beginning to move. Tens of thousands struck against the war on May Day 1916.

This growing discontent received a political focus with the October 1917 revolution in Russia. At last, somewhere, workers had stood up and said no more. By mid-January 1918, strikes were sweeping through Germany’s ally the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On 28 January, 400,000 German workers went on strike; they were joined the next day by 100,000 more.

Those strikes were brutally repressed, but the dam finally burst when a rebellion by sailors in the port of Kiel quickly spread to workers and soldiers in Hamburg, the other cities of northern Germany and finally, in triumph, to Berlin. The Kaiser was overthrown.

The world war was ended, not by negotiations among the great and powerful, but by revolutions from below, first in Russia and then in Germany.

However, the task Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and the other Russian revolutionary leaders had set themselves was not just ending the war but ending the worldwide capitalist system that imposed such horrific wars and untold misery on the mass of humanity in order to preserve the wealth and privileges of a tiny minority.

To that end, the Russian Marxists called for the setting up in every country of new revolutionary workers’ parties – communist parties – which would be organised together in a new centralised workers’ international, the Communist International or Comintern.

Prior to World War One, the major working class parties had been loosely grouped together in the Second, or Socialist International. Initially the Second International had been strongly influenced by revolutionary Marxist politics.

However, in the decade or so leading up to the war, a sterile reformist approach had increasingly come to dominate the day to day practice of the socialist parties, above all the leading party – the giant German Social Democratic Party (SPD). The leaders of these parties made their peace with the capitalists in exchange for a few crumbs from the tables of the rich. The extent of the reformist degeneration was starkly revealed at the outbreak of the war, when the SPD voted for war credits in direct violation of its policy commitment to an unrelenting struggle against imperialist war.

The German betrayal was quickly followed in country after country as the French Socialist Party, the Austrian Socialist Party, the British Labour Party, the Australian Labor Party and numerous others fell into line behind their ruling classes in the most catastrophic war that humanity had ever witnessed. The Russian Bolsheviks were one of the very few heroic exceptions to this litany of betrayal by parties that supposedly championed the interests of workers.

The Bolsheviks suffered severe repression because of their principled anti-war stance, but they held their line and resolutely organised. Once the patriotic euphoria had subsided, they built mass working class support, which provided the base for their triumph only three years later.

Lenin, the central Bolshevik leader  prior to the outbreak of war in August 1914, had looked for inspiration to the German SPD and its key theoretician Karl Kautsky, the so-called pope of Marxism. But with the SPD’s capitulation, Lenin broke sharply with Kautsky and came out loudly and clearly with a call to turn the imperialist war into a civil war against the bosses.

Lenin called for all genuine Marxists to break with the old failed Socialist International and for the founding of a new revolutionary international. The communist parties that Lenin argued for were to be sharply different from the old socialist parties that had become dominated by a coalition of moderate trade union officials and parliamentarians. They were to be parties that were unequivocally committed to revolution and workers’ power. There was to be no toleration of reformist or opportunist elements in these new communist parties.

This approach represented a major advance and a sharp break with the past traditions and practices of the working class movement. Previously, in most countries, revolutionaries and reformists and all sorts of opportunist elements in between (centrists) had cohabited in the same party.

This approach only stifled and held back the revolutionaries, who were under pressure to water down their politics, and benefited the reformists. Now workers were to be offered a clear alternative between propping up the system and an all-out fight for human freedom.

The revolutionary minority of workers and intellectuals would now organise their own distinct communist parties in opposition to both the mainstream capitalist parties and the pro-capitalist reformist workers’ parties. They would be free to organise the class struggle without the constraints imposed by moderates, careerists, opportunists and bureaucrats.

The war’s end resulted in a wave of revolt across Europe and much of the rest of the world as workers attempted to emulate the success of the Bolsheviks. There were revolutions in Germany, Finland and Austria-Hungary and mass upheavals or near revolutions in Italy, France, Spain, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Britain and far-off China and Australia.

The capitalist powers, which only months before had been at each others’ throats in the war, now united as one to attempt to crush the bacillus of revolution in Russia. They were terrified that if the Russian workers were successful, workers everywhere would follow their beacon of hope.

The imperialist powers backed the revolts by former tsarist generals against the new Russian workers’ state. When that failed, they sent in their own troops. French, British, US, Japanese, German, Polish, Canadian, Italian and Australian troops all invaded Russia to try to snuff out the revolution.

The Russian workers made tremendous sacrifices to defend their revolution. The invading imperialist armies were finally repulsed and the reactionary White armies defeated in a civil war that cost millions of lives. The Russian economy was ravaged by death, destruction and disease.

The Bolsheviks recognised that their only hope was to spread the revolution to the more advanced economies of Western Europe. It was this objective that the Comintern, which held its founding congress in Moscow in March 1919, determinedly set out to achieve.

Over the next couple of years, new mass communist parties were created in a series of countries – Germany, Czechoslovakia, France and Italy – and the beginnings of serious parties in a number of others. But building revolutionary parties at a forced pace from scratch was not an easy task. It was something that had taken the Russian Marxists more than 20 years of struggle and the dress rehearsal of the 1905 revolution.

The more experienced activists who joined the new communist parties had been coloured by their experiences in the old social democratic parties. Overcoming that legacy and learning to build in a totally new way took some years.

On the other hand, most of the younger radicalised workers who joined the new parties were raw and impatient for immediate revolution. They risked being drawn into premature and rash attempts to seize power.

These factors combined resulted in a series of revolutionary opportunities being missed or uprisings aborted in Germany, Italy, Hungary, Finland, France, Bulgaria and China.

The Bolshevik leaders, despite all the challenges of the civil war and the collapse of the Russian economy, put enormous energy into trying to train the new communist parties in all the lessons they had learned from their successful revolution. The first four congresses of the Comintern were marked by rigorous democratic debate on the road forward for the revolutionary movement.

Tragically, the moment was missed. The defeats of the revolutions in Western Europe, above all repeated defeats in Germany, left the Russian Revolution terribly isolated by the end of 1923. As a consequence, reaction began to set in within Russia. After the death of Lenin in January 1924, the bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution rapidly accelerated.

Joseph Stalin came to head a new privileged bureaucratic layer that eventually led a murderous counter-revolution that swept away the gains that workers had won in 1917 and imposed a new totalitarian dictatorship. Even more fatally, Stalinist domination was soon extended to the Comintern, which was transformed from an instrument of world revolution into a reactionary counter-revolutionary force that for decades led communist parties to sabotage working class struggles in country after country.

Nonetheless, the Stalinist counter-revolution could not totally wipe out all the memories and lessons of 1917, when workers for the first time had taken power into their own hands and set out to liberate all the oppressed. That was a magnificent achievement that transformed world politics.

It is precisely for this reason that the powers that be all across the world have for the last 100 years detested and denigrated the Russian Revolution and its revolutionary leaders: the revolution showed it was possible for workers not just to fight back and rebel, but to win.

Nor can the Stalinist counter-revolution wipe away all the energy, dynamism and theoretical breakthroughs of the early years of the Comintern. The lessons of the Russian Revolution and the revolutionary years of the Comintern provide vital building blocks for the struggles we face for fighting global capitalism in the 21st century.