Why do we communists still celebrate the October Revolution? There are some who would sneer at such a gathering, some who would suggest that we are like those people who choose to spend their weekends dressing up as roundheads or cavaliers and re-enacting battles from the English civil war.
Sometimes, even those who profess themselves sympathetic to the aims of communism get restless when invited to examine once more the significance of the October Revolution. Why not simply do our duty to history by rehearsing a few stirring highlights – Lenin speaking from a train, the storming of the Winter Palace – and then get on with more pressing matters relating to the 21st century? We all know it was terribly important, but why keep banging on about it?
The October Revolution was such a momentous event, with such vast consequences, that it is hard to imagine how the history of the 20th century and beyond would have developed had the revolution failed. October stands as such a towering achievement that it is not easy to wind the historical imagination back to the months before October. Yet, if we want to grasp the full scale of the initiative and daring of the revolutionary masses, and of the party that led them, we must not assume that the Bolshevik victory was a foregone conclusion, a fact of history just waiting to happen.
If we want to grasp the full import of the events we are gathered here to celebrate, we need to ask ourselves the question: why did the October Revolution not fail? And perhaps in answering that question, we will remind ourselves exactly why all progressive people have cause to remember with joy the Bolshevik achievement, an achievement whose consequences will continue to unfold long after the treacherous liquidation of socialism in the land of the Soviets itself has been reversed.
In truth, there were plenty of reasons at the time to think that the proletarian revolution was on a hiding to nothing in 1917. The Russian working class was relatively tiny, hugely outnumbered by the peasantry. Russia was a vast and backward country; and the non-arrival of successful socialist revolutions in the advanced West left the socialist revolution isolated. Under these circumstances, how did the Bolsheviks prepare for power, how was the power taken, and how was the power held? Why did October not fail? Stalin’s take on this is illuminating.
If you visit cpgb-ml.org, you can download a very good article that Stalin wrote at the end of 1924, entitled ‘The October Revolution and the tactics of the Russian communists’. Stalin begins by looking at the international conditions obtaining in 1917, conditions that “determined the comparative ease with which the proletarian revolution in Russia succeeded in breaking the chains of imperialism and thus overthrowing the rule of the bourgeoisie” . He explains how the split in imperialism, which distracted counterrevolutionary vigilance and gave the Bolsheviks the opportunity to “strengthen and organise their own forces”, also shoved modern humanity into world war. The imposition of that war drove the masses, “exhausted by the war and thirsting for peace”, in the direction of proletarian revolution, enabling the Bolsheviks to demonstrate the connection between the Soviet revolution and the “ending of the hated war”. In turn, the international war triggered a revolutionary crisis of equally international dimensions, thus securing for the Soviet revolution “faithful allies outside Russia”.
These external circumstances can be understood as objective factors that played to the advantage of Bolshevism. The same is true, to a degree, of some of the “favourable internal conditions” within Russia itself which helped October to succeed, such as the demoralisation of the exploiting classes and the size and natural wealth of the territory. But Stalin also enumerates three internal conditions that resulted directly from the conscious ideological struggle for the heart and soul of the labouring masses waged by the Bolsheviks, namely:
1. The proletarian revolution was supported by the working class.
2. It was also supported by the poor peasants (who were hungry for land) and by the soldiers (who were hungry for peace). In the case of peasants in uniform (who made up the majority of the Russian army), these two factors reinforced one another.
3. It was led by the Bolsheviks, who were “tried and tested”, and who possessed “vast connections with the labouring masses”.
Why did the workers, the poor peasants and the soldiers eventually rally en masse behind the Bolsheviks? How did the Bolsheviks come to be held in such passionate esteem by the labouring masses? None of these developments just ‘happened’. None of these developments could have occurred without the conscious intervention of Bolshevism. So to answer these questions we need to look at both the ideological positions of the Bolsheviks and the tactics arising from those positions.
Let’s look first at the ideology.
What the Bolsheviks said …
a) … about proletarian dictatorship
In the article cited above, Stalin stresses again and again that proletarian dictatorship is founded on the class alliance between the proletariat and the labouring masses of the petty bourgeoisie (mostly the labouring masses of the countryside, but also small proprietors and intelligentsia in the towns).
“Whom will the labouring people of town and country support in the struggle for power, the bourgeoisie or the proletariat; whose reserve will they become, the reserve of the bourgeoisie or the reserve of the proletariat – on this depends the fate of the revolution and the stability of the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
The revolutions in France of 1848 and 1871 both saw the peasants stranded on the side of the bourgeoisie, leaving the proletariat weak and isolated, thereby dealing a fatal blow to the revolution. By contrast, “The October Revolution was victorious because it was able to deprive the bourgeoisie of its peasant reserves, because it was able to win these reserves to the side of the proletariat, and because in this revolution the proletariat proved to be the only guiding force for the vast masses of the labouring people of town and country.”
So, getting this question of the worker-peasant alliance right was absolutely crucial to the strength or weakness of proletarian dictatorship. It spelt life or death for the revolution. Stalin is therefore ferocious in his dismissal of those, like Trotsky, who treat this question as simply an exercise in Machiavellian statecraft, where the only political differences owned up to are supposedly differences of ‘emphasis’, something that can be patched up by some kind of gentlemen’s agreement.
“The dictatorship of the proletariat is not simply a governmental top stratum ‘skilfully’ ‘selected’ by the careful hand of an ‘experienced strategist’, and ‘judiciously relying’ on the support of one section or another of the population. The dictatorship of the proletariat is the class alliance between the proletariat and the labouring masses of the peasantry for the purpose of overthrowing capital, for achieving the final victory of socialism, on the condition that the guiding force of this alliance is the proletariat.
“Thus, it is not a question of ‘slightly’ underestimating or ‘slightly’ overestimating the revolutionary potentialities of the peasant movement, as certain diplomatic advocates of ‘permanent revolution’ are now fond of expressing it. It is a question of the nature of the new proletarian state which arose as a result of the October Revolution. It is a question of the character of the proletarian power, of the foundations of the dictatorship of the proletariat itself.”
Stalin also spells out the international dimensions of this relationship between worker and peasant:
“Some comrades believe that this theory is a purely ‘Russian’ theory, applicable only to Russian conditions. That is wrong. It is absolutely wrong. In speaking of the labouring masses of the non-proletarian classes which are led by the proletariat, Lenin has in mind not only the Russian peasants, but also the labouring elements of the border regions of the Soviet Union, which until recently were colonies of Russia. Lenin constantly reiterated that without an alliance with these masses of other nationalities the proletariat of Russia could not achieve victory. In his articles on the national question and in his speeches at the congresses of the Comintern, Lenin repeatedly said that the victory of the world revolution was impossible without a revolutionary alliance, a revolutionary bloc, between the proletariat of the advanced countries and the oppressed peoples of the enslaved colonies. But what are colonies if not the oppressed labouring masses, and, primarily, the labouring masses of the peasantry? Who does not know that the question of the liberation of the colonies is essentially a question of the liberation of the labouring masses of the non-proletarian classes from the oppression and exploitation of finance capital?
“But from this it follows that Lenin’s theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat is not a purely ‘Russian’ theory, but a theory which necessarily applies to all countries. Bolshevism is not only a Russian phenomenon. ‘Bolshevism’, says Lenin, is ‘a model of tactics for all’.”
So what to the jaundiced eye of the Trotskyite looks like a rather dubious class alliance between worker and peasant, only to be tolerated under sufferance under the peculiar conditions of Russia, is in the Bolshevik view the very key to the further progress of the world revolution! It is no accident that Trotskyism is forever turning itself inside out trying to invent ‘socialist’-sounding reasons for withholding consistent support for the Iraqi and Afghan resistance movements, thereby contributing to the general social-democratic effort to keep the British proletariat walled off from its natural allies in the struggle against British imperialism.
(b) … and about socialism in one country
Having explained how proletarian dictatorship succeeded under Bolshevik leadership (and how it would have completely failed had the alliance of worker and peasant been permitted to founder on Trotsky’s phrasemaking), Stalin moves on to the question of building socialism in one country. The very phrase, ‘socialism in one country’, is enough to send most Trotskyites into a frenzy. The very idea that socialism could possibly be built in a backward country like Russia, without the immediate assistance of proletarian revolutions erupting across the advanced West, is seen as a kind of heresy.
However, if they want to burn Stalin for this heresy, they will need to burn Lenin too. In his article, ‘On the slogan for a United States of Europe’, Lenin says this:
“Uneven economic and political development is an absolute law of capitalism. Hence, the victory of socialism is possible first in several or even in one capitalist country taken separately. The victorious proletariat of that country, having expropriated the capitalists and organised its own socialist production, would stand up against the rest of the world, the capitalist world, attracting to its cause the oppressed classes of other countries, raising revolts in those countries against the capitalists, and in the event of necessity coming out even with armed force against the exploiting classes and their states.”
Again, at the time of the New Economic Policy, Lenin said that
“Socialism is no longer a matter of the distant future, or an abstract picture, or an icon. We still retain our old bad opinion of icons. We have dragged socialism into everyday life, and here we must find our way. This is the task of our day, the task of our epoch. Permit me to conclude by expressing the conviction that, difficult as this task may be, new as it may be compared with our previous task, and no matter how many difficulties it may entail, we shall all – not in one day, but in the course of several years – all of us together fulfil it whatever happens so that NEP Russia will become socialist Russia.”
Lenin said this to the Moscow Soviet in November 1922, when it was perfectly clear that the international revolutionary proletarian cavalry was not about to thunder to the rescue of the Russian workers. What about that for heresy?!
Except, of course, that Lenin, Stalin and the Bolsheviks were right, and Trotsky’s “permanent gloominess”was wrong. NEP Russia did go on to become socialist Russia, despite every difficulty.
Lenin’s remarks at the NEP period take us straight back to the question of the relationship between the proletarian vanguard and the peasant masses, and the closely connected question of the relationship between the proletariat of the imperialist centre and the labouring masses of the colonised (or neo-colonised) world. The insistence on pressing on with building socialism, in isolation if need be, is evidence, not of an insular conservatism as the noisy ‘world revolutionists’ contend, but rather the only correct international revolutionary outlook.
Stalin points out that Bolshevik thinking on the question of socialism in one country is based on Lenin’s teaching regarding “the law of the uneven, spasmodic, economic and political development of the capitalist countries”, and the similarly uneven and spasmodic opportunities for revolutionary advance that arise from this development. In short: revolutionary conditions do not ripen in all countries at the same time, and to wait for them to do so is to wait in vain.
This presentation of the question makes it clear that October was not just a ‘one-off’ fluke, or a lucky break that was always bound to go wrong unless world revolution came to the rescue. The lessons learned by the revolutionary masses and their Bolshevik party were, and remain, universal in scope.
What the Bolsheviks did
Having got some sense of where the Bolsheviks stood on these key ideological issues, it is time to examine the practice to which the Bolshevik analysis gave rise – the strategy and tactics whereby the labouring masses were led to revolutionary victory.
Stalin pours ridicule upon Trotsky for his ‘explanation’ of Bolshevik tactics as they evolved between April and October 1917. Trotsky talks as if, right from the word go, the Bolsheviks had a ready-made political army – as if it were only a question of conducting a few reconnaissance missions before sending in the masses to bring home the revolutionary victory.
“If one were to listen to Trotsky, one would think that there were only two periods in the history of the preparation for October: the period of reconnaissance and the period of uprising, and that all else comes from the evil one. What was the April demonstration of 1917? ‘The April demonstration, which went more to the ‘Left’ than it should have, was a reconnoitring sortie for the purpose of probing the disposition of the masses and the relations between them and the majority in the Soviets.’ And what was the July demonstration of 1917? In Trotsky’s opinion, ‘this, too, was in fact another, more extensive, reconnaissance at a new and higher phase of the movement’. Needless to say, the June demonstration of 1917, which was organised at the demand of our party, should, according to Trotsky’s idea, all the more be termed a ‘reconnaissance’.
“This would seem to imply that as early as March 1917 the Bolsheviks had ready a political army of workers and peasants, and that if they did not bring this army into action for an uprising in April, or in June, or in July, but engaged merely in ‘reconnaissance’, it was because, and only because, ‘the information obtained from the reconnaissance’ at the time was unfavourable.
“Needless to say, this oversimplified notion of the political tactics of our party is nothing but a confusion of ordinary military tactics with the revolutionary tactics of the Bolsheviks.
“Actually, all these demonstrations were primarily the result of the spontaneous pressure of the masses, the result of the fact that the indignation of the masses against the war had boiled over and sought an outlet in the streets.
“Actually, the task of the party at that time was to shape and to guide the spontaneously arising demonstrations of the masses along the line of the revolutionary slogans of the Bolsheviks.
“Actually, the Bolsheviks had no political army ready in March 1917, nor could they have had one. The Bolsheviks built up such an army (and had finally built it up by October 1917) only in the course of the struggle and conflicts of the classes between April and October 1917, through the April demonstration, the June and July demonstrations, the elections to the district and city Dumas, the struggle against the Kornilov revolt, and the winning over of the Soviets. A political army is not like a military army. A military command begins a war with an army ready to hand, whereas the party has to create its army in the course of the struggle itself, in the course of class conflicts, as the masses themselves become convinced through their own experience of the correctness of the party’s slogans and policy.” (Our emphasis)
Trotsky’s abject failure to grasp the significance of the Bolshevik tactics evolving through those six months is easier to understand when you remember that this period (the tail end of which found Trotsky enrolled belatedly in the Bolshevik ranks) represented the culmination of fourteen years of ideological struggle for the heart and soul of the labouring masses (during which Trotsky opposed the Bolsheviks, preferring to be a gadfly around the Mensheviks).
There remains the question of how the Bolsheviks were able to expose and marginalise the fake- socialist parties, which, all the way up to July 1917, still dominated the revolutionary movement.
How often in doing our work today are we asked in exasperation, ‘Why get so hot under the collar about the left Labourites, the Trotskyites and the revisionists? Why not stop squabbling like children and turn your fire on the real enemy – capitalism?’
Well, they were singing the same song back in 1917! Says Stalin: “Many people at that time did not understand this specific feature of the Bolshevik tactics and accused the Bolsheviks of displaying ‘excessive hatred’ towards the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, and of ‘forgetting’ the principal goal.”
So he explains why it was necessary in 1917 to spend so much energy attacking the Socialist Revolutionaries (a petty-bourgeois party riding on the back of the peasants) and the opportunist Mensheviks. Before the February revolution overthrew Tsarism, the liberal bourgeois Cadet party occupied a position of compromise between Tsarism and the labouring masses, serving as a crucial support to Tsarism against the swelling revolutionary tide. As such, the Cadet party was targeted for exposure by the Bolsheviks. With the Tsar gone, this all changed.
“In the period of preparation for October the centre of gravity of the conflicting forces shifted to another plane. The tsar was gone. The Cadet Party had been transformed from a compromising force into a governing force, into the ruling force of imperialism. Now the fight was no longer between Tsarism and the people, but between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. In this period the petty-bourgeois democratic parties, the parties of the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, were the most dangerous social support of imperialism. Why? Because these parties were then the compromising parties, the parties of compromise between imperialism and the labouring masses. Naturally, the Bolsheviks at that time directed their main blows at these parties; for unless these parties were isolated there could be no hope of a rupture between the labouring masses and imperialism, and unless this rupture was ensured there could be no hope of the victory of the Soviet revolution.”
By this key tactic of isolating the compromising parties, the Bolsheviks removed the obstacles standing in the path of the revolution, thereby mobilising a political army that proved capable of carrying the October revolution to a successful conclusion.
“The characteristic feature of this period was the further revolutionisation of the labouring masses of the peasantry, their disillusionment with the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, their defection from these parties, their turn towards rallying directly around the proletariat as the only consistently revolutionary force, capable of leading the country to peace. The history of this period is the history of the struggle between the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, on the one hand, and the Bolsheviks, on the other, for the labouring masses of the peasantry, for winning over these masses. The outcome of this struggle was decided by the coalition period, the Kerensky period, the refusal of the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks to confiscate the landlords’ land, the fight of the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks to continue the war, the June offensive at the front, the introduction of capital punishment for soldiers, the Kornilov revolt. And they decided the issue of this struggle entirely in favour of the Bolshevik strategy; for had not the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks been isolated it would have been impossible to overthrow the government of the imperialists, and had this government not been overthrown it would have been impossible to break away from the war. The policy of isolating the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks proved to be the only correct policy.”
We can be certain that the current struggle of Marxism Leninism to isolate the left Labourites, the Trotskyites and the revisionists is equally necessary. We can be certain that our own protracted struggle will be had out, not in some abstract ‘battle of ideas’, but in the course of strenuous and consistent interventions in concrete political battles, under pressure of renewed imperialist crisis. And we can be certain that careful study of the great October Revolution will make our steps firmer and surer on the road ahead, the road to communism. This is why we are gathered here tonight to say loud and clear,
Long Live the October Revolution!