A century ago, Russian workers blazed a new path in human history. Their revolution of 1917 inspired millions around the globe and struck terror into the hearts of the rich. They overthrew the 300-year-old Tsarist monarchy in February (March in the Western calendar). On 25 October (7 November), with the backing of the soldiers and peasants, they overthrew a provisional government that tried to impose capitalist rule. The soviet government, as it became known, refused to continue the slaughter of World War One. It gave the land to the peasants and made far-reaching reforms under workers’ control.
Australian workers heard of the revolution through a hostile press. But they also heard amazing stories carried around the world’s ports by seamen explaining the workers’ view. On 8 November, on reading the news, thousands celebrated by walking out of work. Many celebrated for a whole two days. The red flag flew over trade union halls. “We rejoice in the revolution in Russia and congratulate the people of that country on their efforts to abolish despotic power and class privilege, and urge the workers of other lands where similar conditions exist to follow their example with the same magnificent courage and determination”, Sydney Trades and Labour Council declared. “Does anyone imagine that Russia is going to have a monopoly of revolution?”, asked H.E. Boote, editor of the Australian Worker, the newspaper of the Australian Workers Union. “The workers are questioning their rulers … And they are putting capitalism through an examination that probes its pretensions to the very core.”
In country after country, workers rose in revolt. The revolution inspired artists, poets, writers and philosophers and changed the way they viewed the world. Popular artist Marc Chagall wrote: “The revolution moved me with an absolute force that takes hold of personality, of an individual human, of his being, surging through the borders of imagination and bursting into the most intimate world of images, which themselves become part of the revolution”.
Not everyone celebrated. The Melbourne Age sneered that the workers’ government was “a comic opera government”. Along with all the capitalist press it predicted that the revolution would “fizzle out in a pandemonium of drink and vice”. Over the intervening century, respectable writers have never tired of warning that if workers dare to get above our station, the world will descend into chaos and madness.
However, the story of 1917 reaches out to us 100 years later, in a world of injustice, inequality and war. It demonstrates the possibility of rapid changes in political consciousness, the potential for unity between all the oppressed and the determination and organisational genius workers are capable of in mass struggle. It shows that those who rule can be overturned.