Lessons from the October Revolution and the struggle of the Bolsheviks for today
Contribution of the CC of the Communist Youth Movement of the Netherlands (CJB) to the event of the NCPN and CJB “The meaning of the October Revolution of 1917 for now, 2017 – 25 years NCPN”, on the 25th of November 2017 in Amsterdam.
A hundred years have passed since the October Revolution in Russia, where in 1917 the working class succeeded for the first time in taking matters into their own hands and laying the foundations for the construction of socialism.
The reason that we commemorate the October Revolution today and that the NCPN and CJB have organized similar events across the country, is not only because it is important from a historical point of view, but also because we are convinced that the October Revolution can provide lessons that are still relevant today.
In order to draw these lessons we must understand: what exactly happened in 1917? What were the causes? What were the consequences, in Russia and internationally? Of course it is impossible to answer all these questions today. What we can do is to point out some issues that can in our view provide a better understanding of what happened in 1917 and what we as communists can learn from that today.
We start with a short introduction of the historical background, followed with a brief description of the developments in the period from the first revolution in 1917 in February, the bourgeois democratic revolution that led to the deposition of the Tsar, until the socialist revolution in October that led to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. Then we will look at the conditions and prerequisites needed to make a revolution possible, as well as some aspects of the development of the theory and strategy by the Bolsheviks that made it possible for them to successfully lead the revolution and that are also relevant today.
Historical context: the development of capitalism and the remains of feudalism
Before the revolutions of 1917 the power in Russia was in the hands of the nobility and the Tsar. They were the large landowners who had the power in feudalism, the system that preceded capitalism in Russia and many other countries.
However, towards the end of the 19th century the capitalist relations in the production were developing and strengthening. Trade increased and the banking sector expanded. Over 50.000 km of railroads were constructed. The coal mines and the steel and machine industry developed rapidly. The cities grew and with them also industries such as the textile industry.
Hence at the beginning of the 20th century capitalist relations had to a large extent already emerged in the production. On the one hand a class had emerged that owned the companies and banks: the bourgeoisie. On the other hand there was a class of millions of people without any property of land or other means of production: the working class.
On the one hand a class had emerged that owned the companies and banks: the bourgeoisie. On the other hand there was a class of millions of people without any property of land or other means of production: the working class.
The bourgeoisie had an interest in the strengthening of the capitalist relations of production, for example in the agricultural sector. However, the state and the Tsar served the interests of the nobility, that wanted to maintain the feudalist relations. That way the contradictions between the bourgeoisie and the nobility increased as the capitalist production developed further.
Besides the contradiction between the nobility and the bourgeoisie, the contradictions between the bourgeoisie and the labourers were also intensifying, as the labourers lived under miserable conditions due to the capitalist exploitation. In 1898 the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was founded.
The bourgeois democratic February Revolution
They demanded bread, the termination of the war and the end of the rule of the Tsar. In the beginning of March, the workers started their uprising. Soldiers joined at the side of the workers. It becomes clear that Tsarism is unable to control the situation any longer.
In 1914 the imperialist First World War starts. A war between capitalist countries across the world over resources, transportation routes and markets. Initially there was enthusiasm among the people, but the defeats suffered at the battlefield and the shortages in weapons, ammunition and food fuelled unrest in Russia.
In January 1917 250.000 people went on strike, 400.000 in February. They demanded bread, the termination of the war and the end of the rule of the Tsar. In the beginning of March, the workers started their uprising. Soldiers joined at the side of the workers. It becomes clear that Tsarism is unable to control the situation any longer.
Meanwhile the bourgeoisie and her English and French allies had also lost faith in Tsarism. The Tsar was dethroned and a Provisional Government was installed, in part because they feared that the working people would take the situation in their own hands. This concluded the bourgeois democratic revolution of February 1917. The power had been transferred from the nobility to the capitalists.
The Provisional Government and the stance of the Bolsheviks
In the course of the February Revolution soviets or councils had been established by the workers and the soldiers, that were armed. The Provisional Government was not yet strong enough to break up these soviets. Because of this Lenin spoke in the period after the February Revolution of a “dual power”: on the one hand the bourgeois Provisional Government and on the other the soviets. He foresaw that this situation could not last for long. Either the dictatorship of the capital would be completely victorious, or the working class would overthrow the bourgeois state and establish her own power.
However, the opportunist forces, that held a majority in the soviets at the time, backed the Provisional Government and spread the illusion that the government would keep its promises and would solve the problems of the people, that the Provisional Government would bring bread, peace, land for poor farmers and liberty.
The Bolsheviks did not fall for this. They understood that the capitalists had no interest in stopping the war or redistributing the land. On the 4th of April Lenin presents the famous April theses. In these theses Lenin states that the Bolsheviks should not provide any support for the Provisional Government and that the Bolsheviks had to uncover all illusions about the possibility of the bourgeois government serving the interests of the people, as well as that it is only possible to really achieve a democratic peace if the power of capital is overthrown and the working people establish their own power.
The Russian capitalists benefitted from the continuation of the war and therefore betrayed the demand of the people for peace.
In May 1917, the Provisional Government ensures its western allies that Russia will continue the imperialist First World War. The Russian capitalists benefitted from the continuation of the war and therefore betrayed the demand of the people for peace. The opportunist forces, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, decided to participate in the Provisional Government and to support the continuation of the imperialist war.
In the months that follow large demonstrations are held in Petersburg. The Provisional Government orders to arrest the leaders of the Bolsheviks. Intense persecutions, arrests and murders of Bolsheviks follow. But the labour movement had formed its own armed groups to defend itself against the violence of the bourgeoisie, such as the Red Guard of Petersburg. In more and more soviets the Bolsheviks are gaining the majority.
The Socialist October Revolution
In the evening of the 24th of October Lenin writes: “The situation is critical in the extreme. In fact it is now absolutely clear that to delay the uprising would be fatal.” With the slogan “All power to the soviets!” the Bolsheviks call for an armed revolution to overthrow the Provisional Government and capitalism.
“The situation is critical in the extreme. In fact it is now absolutely clear that to delay the uprising would be fatal.” With the slogan “All power to the soviets!” the Bolsheviks call for an armed revolution to overthrow the Provisional Government and capitalism.
In the morning of the 25th of October the Red Guard of the workers and the other revolutionary groups of soldiers and sailors occupy strategic positions in Petersburg. The radio stations, train stations, government buildings and the central bank were occupied. At 2 a.m. of the 26th of October 1917 the Winter Palace is captured. The Provisional Government is arrested.
Meanwhile the Second Congress of the Soviets had started, which decides that all the power will be turned over to the soviets. The October Revolution is completed. The working class has overthrown the power of the capitalists.
But the struggle was far from over. In 1918 Russia is invaded by the armies of Austria and Germany, Hungary, Turkey, England, France, Japan, the US and other countries. This also strengthened the counter-revolutionary forces inside Russia. The bourgeoisie, generals loyal to the Tsar, but also opportunist groups (such as the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries) mobilized all their forces against the young workers’ state. It is truly impressive, almost unbelievable, that the Russian common people, under the guidance of the Bolsheviks, were victorious. Of course, this was not the achievement of just a few people. As Lenin aid: “The Red Army is invincible because it has united millions of working peasants with the workers who have now learned to fight, have acquired comradely discipline, who do not lose heart, but who become steeled after reverses, and are more and more boldly marching against the enemy…”
At this point we would like to discuss several aspects of this history. First, we notice that a revolution does not take place by chance at any given moment. Therefore, we would like to consider what conditions make a revolution possible.
First of all, there are objective factors involved. The First World War and the economic crisis were important factors that contributed to the creation of a situation in 1917 in which a revolution was possible. Lenin referred to this kind of situation with the term “revolutionary conditions”. The most important characteristics of such a situation are: first, the ruling classes cannot control the situation in the way they used to; secondly, the bottom layers of society are confronted with a rapid increase of the misery; and finally, as a result of the previous conditions, as Lenin said: “there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in ‘peace time’…”
We can see this in Russia in the period from February until October 1917. Due to the crisis and the war the poor people suffered and wanted change, while at the same time the war and the crisis had weakened the ruling power.
Revolutionary conditions occur in capitalism as inevitably as economic crises and wars.
Lenin emphasizes that revolutionary conditions arise objectively. They cannot be created by the will of a party or even a class. Revolutionary conditions occur in capitalism as inevitably as economic crises and wars.
The subjective factor
The revolutionary conditions do not automatically ensure that a revolution actually occurs, and certainly not that the revolution also succeeds, for a crucial role is played by the people themselves, the masses and their leadership, the communist party. In other words: besides the revolutionary conditions that arise objectively, a subjective factor is also necessary.
One might wonder: if revolutionary conditions arise objectively, does that mean we should just wait for these conditions to appear? Does the communist party not have anything to do under non-revolutionary circumstances?
“because it is under non-revolutionary conditions that the working class learns to fight, in the struggle for higher wages, better working conditions, social security, etc”.
Nothing could be further from the truth, because it is under non-revolutionary conditions that the working class learns to fight, in the struggle for higher wages, better working conditions, social security, etc. Likewise, the ability of the communist party to understand the developments and to determine each time the correct way to act, to have strong relations with the working people and to lead them, is also attained in non-revolutionary conditions. The October Revolution could never have occurred if the Bolsheviks and the Russian workers did not have all the experiences of the struggle in the preceding period.
The maturation of the subjective factor: the development of the theory and strategy by the Bolsheviks
To elaborate on the importance of the subjective factor, we would like to mention some points with regard to the development of the theory and the strategy of the Bolsheviks in the period that preceded 1917. We can see that the Bolsheviks continuously adjusted their understanding of the situation and their strategy based on the objective developments. In this way practice enriched theory, and the theory could serve as a “guide to action”. Consequently the Bolsheviks were able determine the right strategy and lead the Russian workers to victory.
The first aspect relates to the stance of the Bolsheviks with regard to the bourgeois state. The fact that the Bolsheviks did not fell into the trap of supporting the Provisional Government, as the opportunist forces did, had to do with their understanding of the state. The Bolsheviks understood that the state is never neutral, that the state always represents the interests of a specific class. The bourgeois state will always defend private capitalist property in the production, and cannot be used for the construction of socialism. The working people must form their own organs of power that can shape the production and the entire organization of society.
The Bolsheviks understood that the state is never neutral, that the state always represents the interests of a specific class. The bourgeois state will always defend private capitalist property in the production, and cannot be used for the construction of socialism. The working people must form their own organs of power that can shape the production and the entire organization of society.
Related to that, a second aspect is that the Bolsheviks did not choose for the one or the other camp of imperialists that fought against each other in the First World War. This in contrast to many social democratic and opportunist parties in that period, that supported their national bourgeoisie in the imperialist war. From the first moment the Bolsheviks said to the common people that the war is only about the interests of the various parts of capital, and that only socialism can really free the people from war.
A third aspect in the development of the theory is that the Bolsheviks pointed out that it is possible for the socialist revolution to succeed initially in one or a small group of countries. That has to do with, among other things, the uneven development of capitalist countries. For the sake of time we will not further elaborate on this. History itself has proven the correctness of this Leninist position.
The achievements under socialism and the struggle today
In the decades that followed after the revolution the Russian workers achieved a lot. The working people in the Soviet Union had many rights and services that we do not even dare to dream of today. From the mid-1930s on unemployment and poverty had become things of the past. Everyone had a job. For everyone there was free access to good health care, education, culture, sport and vacation. Important steps were made in democratic rights, equal rights for minorities and the emancipation of women. And of course we may not forget to mention the decisive contribution of the Soviet Union in defeating the fascists in the Second World War.
From the mid-1930s on unemployment and poverty had become things of the past. Everyone had a job. For everyone there was free access to good health care, education, culture, sport and vacation. Important steps were made in democratic rights, equal rights for minorities and the emancipation of women.
This in contrast to the situation in which we live today, where they try to convince the youth that it is inevitable that they give up more and more and that they beg for a job without a contract and without rights. The achievements of the working people in socialism nowadays seem utopian in even the most developed capitalist countries. That is also the reason why the bourgeoisie fiercely opposes communism in education, the media, and science. Because all those achievements were only possible because of the fact that the production was being centrally planned on the basis of what the population needed, instead of what brings about the highest profits for a small minority. In other words, it was possible thanks to the social ownership of the means of production.
Our party tries to learn from the experiences of the October Revolution and the construction of socialism in the previous century. We must do this on the basis of the facts, without idealizing but also without following the anticommunist propaganda. We can learn from the good aspects as well as the mistakes, that eventually led to the fall of the socialist countries at the end of the 20th century.
However, no system was established at once. After the capitalist relations emerged in the 14th century in Northern Italy, it took centuries before the bourgeoisie succeeded in establishing its domination with the bourgeois revolutions from the 19th century onwards.
Sooner or later new revolutionary conditions will occur and the working class will build a society free from unemployment, poverty, oppression, wars and exploitation.
As Lenin said about the October Revolution: “This first victory is not yet the final victory, and it was achieved by our October Revolution at the price of incredible difficulties and hardships, at the price of unprecedented suffering, accompanied by a series of serious reverses and mistakes on our part. How could a single backward people be expected to frustrate the imperialist wars of the most powerful and most developed countries of the world without sustaining reverses and without committing mistakes! We are not afraid to admit our mistakes and shall examine them dispassionately in order to learn how to correct them. (…) We have made the start. When, at what date and time, and the proletarians of which nation will complete this process is not important. The important thing is that the ice has been broken; the road is open, the way has been shown.”
Today in 2017 capitalism may seem invincible. But under the surface the contradictions of the system are increasing. Sooner or later new revolutionary conditions will occur and the working class will build a society free from unemployment, poverty, oppression, wars and exploitation. And this time we are armed with the lessons from the experiences from the October Revolution and the construction of socialism in the previous century. That is what the NCPN and CJB are struggling for.