Historian and activist Paul Le Blanc reflects upon the Year One of international working class struggle from Counterfire’s recent ‘Revolution: Russia 1917 – on hundred years on’ event
It is a pleasure to be with you on this hundredth anniversary of the overthrow of Tsarist tyranny. It is a remembrance that can inspire us in our current struggles against the multiple tyrannies of our time: the tyranny of the wealthy multinational corporations and the governments they control and the vicious policies which they carry out, for their immense profit. For their profit, but at our expense: at the expense of our quality of life, our freedoms, our cultural and natural environment, and more.
Halfway around the world from what had been Tsarist Russia, the great American working-class leader, Eugene V. Debs, was able to rejoice, with others, “the day of the people has arrived,” in celebration of the 1917 revolution. In this talk I want to begin with a poem by a friend, backed up with an American newspaper account and a quote from Russia’s key revolutionary leader of that long-ago time.
I then want to touch on some of the things we can learn from what happened in revolutionary Russia, that can help us as we move forward to face our own challenges.
That is one reason for learning what happened “way back when” – to find inspiration in the creativity and courage of the men and women who came before, but also to honor them while trying to learn from their accomplishments and their mistakes, so that we can creatively and courageously continue the best of what they were about. The poem is by my friend Dan Georgakas. Here it is – October Song
They who never ruled before
poured from their factory districts
across the bridges of Petrograd
to make October.
The moon was so startled
all global tides
The lights went on all over Europe.
can ever be the same.
The quote I want to share is, of course, from a life-long revolutionary named Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who under the name Lenin was the leader of what became a very substantial revolutionary socialist faction in the Russian labor movement that ended up leading Russia’s revolutionary struggle to victory in 1917. But to make sense of the quote, we need a bit of historical context and a bit of information from a U.S. journalist.
The revolution had begun when the workers and peasants – some of them in uniform thanks to being conscripted into the Tsar’s army and navy during the incredibly bloody and horrific First World War – overthrew the Tsarist regime in February (according to our own calendar it started on March 8th, International Women’s Day).
In this the workers and peasants and soldiers and sailors who fought the revolutionary battles had formed their own democratic councils (soviets) to organize and coordinate their efforts. At the same time, a gaggle of more “realistic” and “practical” types – liberal, conservative, and moderate-socialist politicians – had also put together a Provisional Government.
This Provisional Government lavishly praised the workers and peasants and soldiers and sailors, respectfully complimented the councils (the soviets), and used all kinds of democratic and populist and patriotic rhetoric – promising to bring what the people wanted: peace, bread, and land.
Peace with honor, of course, and bread just as soon as could be provided under the difficult circumstances facing the country, and certainly a fair and just redistribution of land that would benefit the poor peasants without violating the rights of the wealthy landowners.
Lenin, joined by Leon Trotsky and a growing number of others, insisted that genuine peace – not to mention bread for the workers and land to the peasants – could only be won by those who actually overthrew the Tsar, not by the old-time politicians tied in with politics as usual and the power structures of the wealthy.
Through the experiences that people actually lived through from March to October, they won big majorities in the soviets around such slogans as “Peace! Land! Bread! Down with the Provisional Government! All Power to the Soviets!”
An eyewitness report on the October Revolution, written by journalist John Reed was cabled back to the United States:
‘The rank and file of the Workmen’s, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Councils are in control, with Lenin and Trotsky leading. Their program is to give the land to the peasants, to socialize natural resources and industry and for an armistice and democratic peace conference. … No one is with the Bolsheviki except the proletariat, but that is solidly with them.’
Reed went on to write a book detailing what happened, which is still worth reading today – Ten Days That Shook the World. All this gives the context for the Lenin quote – taken from a declaration sent out to the population of Russia in November 1917. Here is some of that declaration:
‘The workers’ and peasants’ revolution has definitely triumphed in Petrograd … The revolution has triumphed in Moscow too. … Daily and hourly reports are coming in from the front and from the villages announcing the support of the overwhelming majority of the soldiers in the trenches and the peasants in the provinces for the new government and its decrees on peace and the immediate transfer of the land to the peasants. The victory of the workers’ and peasants’ revolution is assured because the majority of the people have already sided with it. …
Comrades, working people! Remember that now you yourselves are at the helm of state. No one will help you if you yourselves do not unite and take into your hands all affairs of the state. Your Soviets are from now on the organs of state authority, legislative bodies with full powers. …
Comrades, workers, soldiers, peasants and all working people! Take all power into the hands of your Soviets. Be watchful and guard like the apple of your eye your land, grain, factories, equipment, products, transport—all that from now onwards will be entirely your property, public property. Gradually, with the consent and approval of the majority of the peasants, in keeping with their practical experience and that of the workers, we shall go forward firmly and unswervingly to the victory of socialism—a victory that will be sealed by the advanced workers of the most civilized countries, bring the peoples lasting peace and liberate them from all oppression and exploitation.’
From this declaration we can see several key points that help define the meaning of the October Revolution.
For those who were leading it, the keystone of the whole effort was the notion that the great majority of people – those whose lives and labor keeps society running – are the ones who should run society.
This revolutionary democracy would involve an alliance of the different sectors of the laboring population, in this case the workers and the peasants, working together through their own democratic councils – the soviets – to run the political affairs of the new state, and it would also involve their taking over the entire economy, which would belong to all and be used to benefit all, under the control of all: that is what socialism means.
This profoundly radical democracy based on a worker-peasant alliance, with political democracy linked to the economic democracy of socialism, was put forward as the only way to win lasting peace and liberation from all oppression and exploitation.
At the same time, such a victory could only be secured on a global level, through revolutionary internationalism.
The workers and peasants of economically backward countries must be joined by the working classes in more and more of the advanced capitalist countries, moving forward to make socialist revolutions of their own.
Revolutionary Russia was showing the way for the diverse working people around the world to unite, move beyond the chains of tyranny, and create a new world which could provide for the free development of each and all.
Contrary to the assertions of dishonest politicians, and of academics who should know better, there was no hidden agenda here – demagogically making popular promises around limited goals, as is sometimes charged, while “really” working for socialism and world revolution. That’s not how it was.
It was all open and above-board. Not only did Lenin and his revolutionary comrades call for socialism and world revolution as soon as they were swept into power, and not only had they been saying such things throughout the eventful year of 1917, but they had been saying such things as openly as possible, to whoever would listen, for many years, and through many struggles in which they had offered and sometimes earned leadership.
Right here, it seems to me, we can find some of the essential positive lessons of the October Revolution.
The capitalist system and human reality have changed in many ways since 1917, but the essential things that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were saying about them – that the only way of overcoming tyranny and oppression is through our own efforts, through alliances uniting all of the oppressed laboring people, through establishing the political and economic democracy of socialism, and through understanding this as a global process – all of these things remain true for our own time.
Another positive lesson is that if we are serious about all of this, we need to say it – out loud and clearly – right from the start and consistently, saying it in ways that more and more people can understand, saying it in ways that more and more people feel is relevant to their lives.
When we look at the actual history of how the revolutionaries actually functioned over the years, we see that this means not simply lecturing to and at people, but especially in listening to them, learning from them, and integrating what we understand with what they understand.
We also see that it means our being involved in actual struggles in which larger numbers of people are involved or are ready to be involved – struggles not for revolutionary socialism, but struggles for bread, for at least a modicum of elemental dignity, for an expansion of at least some limited rights and well-being.
Important lessons can be learned in this way, both by revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries, as they work together for victories around such limited goals. Revolutionary perspectives can be enriched in this way, and to the extent that revolutionary perspectives make sense, such experiences of struggle can help more and more people learn that.
Such a process can only be advanced, made coherent, and provide an essential consistency and continuity through the serious development of an organization of activists. Such an organization must help its members to develop and share an understanding of current realities, a vision of a possible better future, and a realistic notion of how to get from one to the other, as well as a set of practical-political skills that can help them accomplish this.
All of the Russian revolutionaries, whether or not they were Bolsheviks, agreed with this – although Lenin and his comrades are the ones who proved most effective in making it so.
For this reason, it makes sense to give special attention to the revolutionary party they developed which played such a key role in the October Revolution.
That is crucially important, and in a session later today I want to return to such matters – taking a critical look but also a positive look at Lenin and what has been called “Leninism,” the “Leninist party,” and what this means for us today.
And, in fact, in my concluding remarks for this session, I also want to give more attention to the relevance of the October Revolution to our own time.
Our world is a very different place now than it was a hundred years ago. The workers of the world have multiplied greatly, and they are a much, much larger percentage of the global population than was the case in 1917. There have been amazing technological and cultural changes – some of which have drawn the peoples of the world closer together, placing amazing potentialities for shared knowledge and communication literally at our finger-tips, creating at the same time a productivity and potential abundance enhancing the material potential for socialism.
But the consciousness of the working class is in many ways lower, the disorientation and fragmentation and divisions within the working class are much greater. The organized labor movement has eroded, in some cases it has collapsed, and in others it has morphed ever-further into a bureaucratic apparatus, integrated into the capitalist status quo, on close terms with business and government elites, removed from the daily lives of ordinary workers.
In recent decades, the shiny wonders of capitalist globalization have become increasingly tarnished – with many people around the world experiencing declining living conditions, increased exploitation, growing cultural and environmental degradation, deteriorating communities, growing social instability, not to mention the seemingly never-ending story of violence, terrorism, war.
Mainstream politicians whose stock-in-trade has been reassuring blather about the status quo have increasingly been losing their credibility. Many have begun to radicalize under the impact of the realities of our time. Some have responded to the appeals of religious fundamentalists, conservative ultra-nationalists, populist demagogues, and racists who promise one or another special “fix.”
Our responsibility is not simply to protest and push back against such destructive and false pathways, but to build a modern-day equivalent to the radical democratic and working-class force that the Bolsheviks were, to pose a genuine alternative that ultimately will be capable of winning mass support.
We must build such forces in more and more countries, with a perspective – over the next two decades – of helping to do what the Russian masses began to do in 1917: carry out real struggles capable of putting political and economic power in the hands of the working class.
One danger is to pursue the two shortcuts that Rosa Luxemburg once warned against, either: (1) proclaiming ourselves super-revolutionary heroes, cutting ourselves off from genuine mass struggles of the working class, or (2) becoming a mass force for bourgeois social reform that integrates our struggles and movements into the capitalist status quo.
We need to rebuild and revitalize the labor and social movements and working-class consciousness on a scale that is comparable to what existed in the early decades of the twentieth century – only stronger, reflecting all that we have learned over the past century.
Only with a strong multi-faceted working-class movement and consciousness can realizing the revolutionary-democratic goals of the October Revolution become a practical possibility.
Without such a mass movement and mass consciousness, attempts at socialist revolution will be nothing more than empty posturing and play-acting. We must work with others – in a pluralistic and democratic movement of activists – to build the mass struggles and consciousness and organizations that we need, fighting for and winning short-term victories as a pathway to building mass support and consciousness and strength for pushing on to revolutionary and socialist goals.
Given the nature of the crises we face – social, cultural, environmental as well as economic and political – we do not have all the time in the world to accomplish this. Yet this introduces an urgency in the immediate struggles that, if we apply ourselves to the task correctly, can facilitate the creation of a consciousness and an organized force that can approximate what the Bolsheviks were doing in 1917.
In this sense, Rosa Luxemburg’s concluding words in her 1918 polemic The Russian Revolution have a powerful resonance for our own time. Listen to her words:
‘In the present period, when we face decisive final struggles in all the world, the most important problem of socialism was and is the burning question of our time. It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with [the German Renaissance revolutionary poet Ulrich von] Hutten: “I have dared!”
[Luxemburg continues:] This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realization of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labor in the entire world. In Russia, the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to “Bolshevism.”’
These stirring words of Rosa Luxemburg pose more than one challenge for us today, as we seek to understand the October Revolution of 1917 and as we wrestle with its applicability to 2017. Some of us who are older are running out of time for engaging with such wrestling – but those of you who are younger, with all of your courage and energy and creativity, will have an opportunity to do amazing things in the spirit of Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin and so many others who represent the traditions of the October Revolution.