By Brian Jackson
The 1917 October Revolution created today’s world in both an objective and subjective sense. Objectively, the October Revolution delivered the decisive blow to the four-century old colonial and imperialist system from which it has never recovered. Subjectively, in no country has the working class taken power and held it for any prolonged period other than via a political party that originated in the Third International created by the October Revolution (Russia, Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam) or which fused with a party from the Third International and embraced Marxism-Leninism (Cuba).
It was the October Revolution, and Lenin’s decisive role in the creation of the Bolshevik Party, which showed the sole means by which the working class could take and hold power. No other path has ever succeeded for precisely the reasons Lenin stated classically in What is to Be Done – in its struggle against capital the working class has no other material weapon except political organisation. Even in favourable circumstances, without such a Leninist political organisation the working class will suffer setbacks and defeats – as the recent lessons of the rise of the left and setbacks in mainland Latin America confirm. In Asia (China, Vietnam) and in Cuba the working class holds power due to a ‘Leninist’ organisation. In Latin America, without such organisation outside Cuba, despite the swing of an entire continent to the left, the working class suffered defeats and setbacks. Recent events in Europe, for example the debacle of Syriza in Greece, show the same lesson.
Surveying the consequences of the October Revolution is therefore not an act of an historian’s study, it remains key to understanding today’s reality
The objective legacy of October
‘Si monumentum requiris, circumspice’ – ‘If you seek a monument look around you’. The famous epitaph of Christopher Wren in St Paul’s Cathedral explains perfectly the relation of the modern world to Russia’s October Revolution. It was the October Revolution that created the fundamental parameters of the modern world.
It was the October Revolution that made possible the Chinese Revolution and the rise of modern China, the Vietnamese revolution, the Cuban revolution and therefore the other successful struggles which smashed to pieces the vile colonial Empires which had controlled the overwhelming majority of the world’s peoples for three centuries.
It was fear of the spread of the overthrow of capitalism into Western Europe after World War II, itself the product of the October Revolution, which forced West European capitalism to grant the welfare state – a welfare state the population of Western Europe is now having to increasingly fight to defend given that the direct threat in Europe from the consequences of the October Revolution no longer exists.
It was the fear of the spread of the overthrow of capitalism internationally, of the consequences of the October Revolution, and of the international discrediting of the US, which was the decisive international pressure which aided the African-American population of the US in their struggle to destroy the US Jim Crow system and launch the modern struggle for civil rights.
It was the material aid from the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, both products of the October revolution, which allowed the defeat first of France and then the United States in Vietnam – the event whose consequences in the US and internationally are felt to this day.
It was the state created by the October Revolution which, in the largest military battles in human history at Moscow, Stalingrad and Kursk, broke the spine of Nazism and thereby saved Europe from fascism – not the small side show of D-Day which entirely falsely is portrayed as responsible for this.
Those, who attempt to portray the October Revolution as a past historical event, limited within Russia, merely show their intellectual limits in that they do not understand the most powerful forces that created the world in which we live.
The price paid by the Soviet people for these events, which contributed so much to the progress of others, was unequalled. Around forty million people died in the USSR in the Civil War following Western invasions to attempt to crush the Soviet Union, in Stalin’s collectivisation and purges which followed the isolation of the revolution, and in World War II. This was an even higher proportion of the population than died in China in its long war against Japanese invasion. No struggle in history was greater than the ability of the Soviet people to withstand capitalist and imperialist opposition and attack for more than 70 years.
And, finally, the October revolution was not overthrown by outside forces. It was the degeneration of the ruling stratum of the USSR, of its Communist Party, which finally achieved what outside capitalism and imperialism could not achieve directly. It was Yeltsin, who was hailed by some confused and disoriented ‘leftists’ in the West, who led the destruction of the USSR and the restoration of capitalism within it.
Consequences of the defeat of October
In the same way that the victory of the October Revolution in 1917 created a giant step forward throughout the world its final defeat within the framework of the Soviet Union, with the restoration of capitalism in the USSR in 1991, threw the world and humanity backwards.
· With the threat of the USSR removed imperialism embarked on a series of new aggressive wars – including against Iraq, Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya.
· A massive transfer of wealth from the working class to capital took place internationally with a dramatic increase in the share of profits in the economy and radically increasing inequality.
· An assault began on the welfare state in Western Europe that is still continuing, which was followed by a wave of mass racist and far right parties epitomised by the Front National in France. Eastern Europe saw the introduction of increasingly racist and reactionary governments in Hungary, Poland and other countries.
· An attempt to roll back the gains of women, black people, and major religious groups including Islam began – in the US with attacks on reproductive rights, on black participation in elections, in even more overt police killing of black people and in numerous other forms, and internationally in particular in a wave of Islamophobia.
· A wave of intellectual reaction began with attempts to revive ideologies which had previously been pushed to the extreme fringes of politics and intellectual life – for example the supposedly ‘progressive role of colonialism’
This wave of reaction totally refuted the idea that Western style democracy was the progressive force in the world – the overthrow of the USSR, and the introduction of Western style democracy into the former USSR and Eastern Europe, was accompanied by international reaction. Equally refuted was the idea that the USSR was a form of ‘state capitalism’, which made it irrelevant to the working class internationally whether it existed or not – the restoration of real capitalism in the USSR led to all the massive forms of reaction already outlined, with the overthrow of the USSR therefore being a huge setback for the working class internationally.
Degeneration in the USSR
The restoration of capitalism in the USSR was the final culmination of the development of a reactionary bureaucratic caste, the nomenklatura, created in that country under Stalin. Trotsky was the first major Marxist theorist to analyse this – proposing the foundation of a Fourth International in 1933.
But the international class struggle took a different path to the one Trotsky had analysed for dual reasons. He was correct that no party following the line of the Stalinised USSR ever led a successful popular revolution – despite the power and immensely progressive role of the USSR in crushing European fascism. But forces capable of successfully leading popular revolutions emerged from within the former Third International. In January 1935, at the Zunyi Conference, Mao Zedong, definitely took control of the Communist Part of China from the representatives of the Stalinist Comintern. The successful strategy of Mao Zedong led to the creation in 1949 of the People’s Republic of China – the overthrow of capitalism in the most populous country in the world. During World War II Tito led a successful revolutionary struggle to overthrow capitalism – in doing so forming ‘proletarian brigades’ and creating a socialist revolution in direct contradiction to Stalin’s policies. In Vietnam Ho Chi Minh led a struggle defeating first French and then US imperialism. In Cuba Fidel Castro’s struggle for national independence and socialism was led by a force outside the Cuban Communist Party but which finally fused with it to form a Marxist-Leninist Communist party in Cuba.
In China, alongside Russia the greatest revolution of the 20th century, Mao Zedong’s strategy was proved correct; the Chinese revolution established Mao Zedong – with Lenin – as the 20th century’s greatest revolutionary strategist. Trotsky’s strategy on the other hand was wrong in a dual sense. First, Mao Zedong’s strategy of ‘the countryside surrounds the cities’ was proved correct in the successful more than twenty-year war to overthrow capitalism in China – Trotsky’s call for the CPC to leave the countryside and enter the cities was proved false. Second, while Mao Zedong engaged in a long internal battle to gain leadership of the CPC he never broke formally with the Third International or its successor formations as Trotsky anticipated.
Revival of struggle after 1991
Turning from the objective impact of the October Revolution to the subjective one, following the restoration of capitalism in the USSR in 1991 a wave of reaction inevitably unfolded internationally, with bourgeois ideologues proclaiming the total victory of capitalism and ‘the end of history.’ But the fate of the USSR was not repeated after 1991 in the countries in which capitalism had been overthrown in Asia and Latin America – in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Cuba. Then, in 1998, the first major step forward after the huge defeat and retreat of the working class following the overthrow of the USSR took place with Chavez’s election as president in Venezuela – followed by the defeat of reactionary military coup against Chavez in 2002 which broke the capitalist state apparatus in Venezuela.
For a decade the left advanced across almost the whole continent of Latin America forming governments in most major countries including Brazil and Argentina. These progressive governments brought about a ‘revolution in distribution’, ensuring that the poorest sections of their countries, as well as the mass of the population, instead of merely the rich and the imperialists, benefitted from the economic growth accompanying the huge increase in commodity prices in the first decade of the 21st century.
But the lessons of the October Revolution were then confirmed ‘from the negative’ in Latin America. When commodity prices began to fall from 2014 the left across most of Latin America was shown to have been able to carry out a ‘revolution in distribution’, but not a ‘revolution in production’, an ability to create economic growth and development faced with a global international downturn – despite the fact that China and Vietnam were already a model showing the most dramatic economic growth of any major developing countries. Chavez showed as great as personal heroism as any revolutionary leader, literally facing death in 2002 to defend the revolution, and he was an inspired leader of the masses – one of the great figures in revolutionary history. But the lessons of Lenin and October were shown to be correct. Without a Leninist political organisation in Latin America, outside Cuba, the Latin American left was not able to work out a solution to the economic crises that began to unfold in Latin America from 2014 onwards. The left lost the elections in Argentina and was overthrown in a de facto coup in Brazil. Once more it was shown that the working class could not take and hold power relatively ‘spontaneously’ or without a Leninist political organisation. In Venezuela the left continues to hold power, and it is enormously to be hoped that it will defeat the problems it has encountered, but it is battling against deep difficulties.
These lessons of Latin America are also vital for the new upsurge of struggle in Europe. The type of left which emerged in Latin America after the turn of the century, that is a real left totally opposed not only in words but actions to capitalism, is now beginning to appear in Europe – in Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, in forces around Mélenchon in France, in supporters of Podemos in Spain and in other countries. This left in Europe, of course, does not dominate a continent as in Latin America, but it is a significant force with a base among the mass of the population which can seriously grow given the period of very slow growth Western capitalism has entered into.
A long period of struggle
The building of a working-class political organisation, of the type Lenin played the decisive role in creating in Russia and the USSR, and which model was then followed in the overthrow of capitalism in China, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, and Cuba cannot be established without immense class struggles. As Lenin explained clearly In Left Wing Communism – an Infantile Disorder:
‘For about half a century—approximately from the forties to the nineties of the last century— progressive thought in Russia, oppressed by a most brutal and reactionary tsarism, sought eagerly for a correct revolutionary theory, and followed with the utmost diligence and thoroughness each and every “last word” in this sphere in Europe and America. Russia achieved Marxism—the only correct revolutionary theory—through the agony she experienced in the course of half a century of unparalleled torment and sacrifice, of unparalleled revolutionary heroism, incredible energy, devoted searching, study, practical trial, disappointment, verification, and comparison with European experience. Thanks to the political emigration caused by tsarism, revolutionary Russia, in the second half of the nineteenth century, acquired a wealth of international links and excellent information on the forms and theories of the world revolutionary movement, such as no other country possessed.
‘On the other hand, Bolshevism, which had arisen on this granite foundation of theory, went through fifteen years of practical history (1903-17) unequalled anywhere in the world in its wealth of experience. During those fifteen years, no other country knew anything even approximating to that revolutionary experience, that rapid and varied succession of different forms of the movement—legal and illegal, peaceful and stormy, underground and open, local circles and mass movements, and parliamentary and terrorist forms. In no other country has there been concentrated, in so brief a period, such a wealth of forms, shades, and methods of struggle of all classes of modern society, a struggle which, owing to the backwardness of the country and the severity of the tsarist yoke, matured with exceptional rapidity, and assimilated most eagerly and successfully the appropriate “last word” of American and European political experience. ‘
Similarly, in China around 100 million people died in the class struggles between the British assault on China in the Opium War of 1842 and the final creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In this process, as Xi Jinping summarized: ‘In 1911, the revolution led by Sun Yat-sen overthrew the autocratic monarchy that had ruled China for several thousand years. But once the old system was gone, where China would go became the question. The Chinese people then started exploring long and hard for a path that would suit China’s national conditions. They experimented with constitutional monarchy, imperial restoration, parliamentarism, multi-party system and presidential government, yet nothing really worked. Finally, China took the path of socialism.’
Vietnam similarly had to fight bitter revolutionary wars for three decades, against both French and then US imperialism, to achieve national independence and the overthrow of capitalism.
Fidel Castro’s successful revolution of 1959 stood on the shoulders of José Martí’s struggle for Cuban independence and his own 1953 unsuccessful Moncada Barracks uprising.
Given the extreme ruthlessness, including the violence, of the capitalist class the working class will necessarily initially seek easier solutions to its problems than socialist revolution, and therefore not see the necessity of the type of organisation which Lenin showed how to create. Those who urge the working class to take more radical measures if less radical ones will suffice are merely ‘romantics’ who have no real idea of the costs of a serious class struggle. Only when the course of the struggle itself makes clear no solution short of those Lenin outlined will suffice will the majority of the population rally to support a Leninist political organisation. This therefore determines for a prolonged period the strategy and tactics of those who have absorbed the lessons of the October revolution.
During the prolonged initial struggles that will inevitably occur before the majority of the working class becomes convinced only a socialist revolution will solve its problems those who have absorbed the lessons of Marx and Lenin will inevitably be a minority. They must therefore push forward the class struggle under those circumstances. In the words of Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto: ‘The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole
‘The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.’
Marxism and understanding of the class struggle
The fact Marxists have the most accurate understanding of the line of advance of the working class means that Marxists can play a role much greater than their numbers during the partial advances of the working class and long before Marxists become a majority among the working class – Lenin famously outlined the framework to do this in Left Wing Communism – An Infantile Disorder.
It is extremely useful to understand this situation in the terms Mao Zedong stated in a famous essay in China, On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People, clearly distinguishing ‘contradictions between the people and the enemy’ and ‘contradictions among the people’:
‘To understand these two different types of contradictions correctly, we must first be clear on what is meant by “the people” and what is meant by “the enemy”. The concept of “the people” varies in content in different countries and in different periods of history in a given country. Take our own country for example. During the War of Resistance Against Japan, all those classes, strata and social groups opposing Japanese aggression came within the category of the people, while the Japanese imperialists, their Chinese collaborators and the pro-Japanese elements were all enemies of the people. During the War of Liberation, the U.S. imperialists and their running dogs — the bureaucrat-capitalists, the landlords and the Kuomintang reactionaries who represented these two classes — were the enemies of the people, while the other classes, strata and social groups, which opposed them, all came within the category of the people….
‘Since they are different in nature, the contradictions between ourselves and the enemy and the contradictions among the people must be resolved by different methods.’
Contradictions between the people and the enemy were to be resolved by acute struggle, including violence. Contradictions among the people must be resolved through discussion.
This distinction entirely applies in all countries, including developed ones. It is objectively impossible to solve all the problems facing humanity at once. Therefore, numerous groups within ‘the people’, that is those oppressed by capitalism and imperialism, have entirely legitimate and different needs and demands – the situation of male and female workers is not at all identical, the situation of those subject to racism and the ‘white’ population differs, the situation of skilled and unskilled workers differs, the situation of those in imperialist states and countries dominated by imperialism is not the same, it is necessary to work out the correct solution to the problems of immediate economic development to remove the poorest sections of the world’s population from poverty while dealing with the threat to the whole of humanity from climate change, and numerous other issues. The task of Marxists is to synthesise these legitimate demands of the different sections of ‘the people’ to arrive at the greatest step forward that can be taken at any point in time – which also requires maintaining the unity in action of ‘the people’ against ‘the enemy’.
The current international situation
This situation is clear in present trends now unfolding internationally. First, an international recomposition is taking place of those who explicitly support the October revolution – of the ‘international communist movement’. The two largest groups of these in the world, the followers of Mao Zedong in China and of Fidel Castro in Latin America, previously had insufficient discussion and contact despite mutual support and admiration at the highest levels. This is symbolised in the pictures below of Fidel Castro saluting at the mausoleum of Mao Zedong in Beijing and Xi Jinping bowing three times, the highest form of Chinese honour, when signing the book of condolences at the Cuban Embassy in China on the death of Fidel Castro. Xi stated of Castro: ‘He is a great figure of our times, and his immortal historic contributions to the world’s socialist development and support for the cause of justice for all countries will be forever remembered… the Chinese party, government and people stand together with the Cuban party, government and people at this special moment.’ Xi said the Chinese people have lost a ‘close comrade and sincere friend.’ Fidel Castro, in addition to his open admiration of Mao Zedong, stated: ‘Xi Jinping is one of the strongest and most capable revolutionary leaders I have met in my life.’ The high mutual regard of the leaderships of Cuba and China is totally clear from these and numerous other statements.
Fidel Castro saluting at the mausoleum of Mao Zedong
Xi Jinping bows on signing the book of condolences at the Cuban embassy in Beijing on the death of Fidel Castro
Meeting of Fidel Castro and Xi Jinping in Havana
But if these relations between the two largest revolutionary socialist currents on the planet were previously primarily only at the top levels this is changing significantly following the setbacks in Latin America after 2014. In Latin America analysis of why China was able to maintain huge economic growth, and improvement of the living conditions of its population, despite the aftermath of the international financial crisis, while the Latin American left in government was not able to achieve this, is leading to much wider discussion of China’s policies in Latin America. Simultaneously China is now taking a much more active role in the promotion of Marxism internationally – calling two Congresses on the world study of Marxism in 2017 and 2018.
In addition to the largest international Marxist dialogue, between supporters of Fidel Castro and Mao Zedong, this international recomposition of the international communist movement is now also felt in Russia, birthplace of the October Revolution, itself. After a period in which Russian communists failed to understand sufficiently the significance of China’s development, Gennady Zyuganov, general secretary of the Russian Communist Party, in his speech to the conference of communist organisations convened to celebrate the centenary of the October Revolution in 2017, stated clearly that the ‘economic miracle’ of China was today proving the correctness of Marxism. The Chinese revolution, which the October Revolution made possible, was now reacting back on the country of Lenin.
Meeting of Xi Jinping and Gennady Zyuganov, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation in Beijing in 2014
In countries dominated by imperialism, the class struggle is more intense than in imperialist states themselves. Therefore, the dialogue between Latin America and Asian communists is naturally developing faster and at a higher level than discussions within the imperialist countries. But in Europe admiration of the struggle in Latin America, and of Castro and Chavez, is widespread in the left and has become a significant factor among substantial left forces in several countries. Also, regarding China, former Greek Finance Minister Varoufakis’ recent revelation that in 2015 Greece and China had arrived at a broad agreement on economic cooperation, which was then blocked by Germany. The successful recent negotiations between Greece and China, including Greece blocking EU attacks on China, illustrates the beginning of a more correct understanding of China’s situation in Europe. Therefore, while the recomposition of the international communist movement, primarily under the impact of the discussion of pro-China and pro-Cuban currents, is naturally more advanced at present in countries dominated by imperialism than in the imperialist centres themselves nevertheless its influence for the first time is beginning to reach into Europe and the US.
It will, of course, take time for these subjective lessons first demonstrated by the October Revolution to be understood and integrated into thinking of the left internationally – particularly in the imperialist states. It took massive class struggles for the Russian Bolshevik Party, for the Chinese, Vietnamese and Cuban parties to achieve and maintain working power. Equally there is no possibility for this understanding to be fully achieved in the very first waves of the new struggles in Latin America and Europe. But equally, without these lessons of the October being understood socialist revolution will not be successfully achieved. As Latin America showed, even in favourable conditions across an entire continent without a Leninist type of political organisation, a key subjective legacy of the October Revolution, the working class has not been able to consolidate and stably sustain state power.
Naturally in a different form these conditions also determine the situation in Britain – as they did earlier across Latin America.
To adopt Chinese Marxist terminology, the ‘main contradiction’ in Britain in economic and social terms is the drive by the ruling class to attack the working class and the general population via austerity, attacks on the welfare state, support for imperialist wars, and the promotion of racism to attempt to gain support for these reactionary projects. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party opposes all these and therefore the main political contraction in Britain is between supporters and opponents of the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party.
Around this main contradiction, between the people and the enemy, only intense class struggle can determine the outcome. Within the ranks of ‘the people’, that is the supporters of Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, inevitably some differences will emerge. These contradictions ‘among the people’ must however be dealt with in an entirely different way to contradictions between the people and the enemy – they must be dealt with by dialogue and not breaking up unity in action against the enemy. Through such dialogue and the test of the unfolding class struggle it will become clear which analysis of the situation among those put forward among the ranks of the people is most accurate.
The historical experience of Russia, Asia, Latin America, and Europe of course applies to Britain and again confirms the lessons of the October Revolution. Marxists, those who have learned the lessons of October, can play a role far greater than their numbers long before they achieve majority support among the working class because they have the most accurate understanding of how the class struggle will unfold.
Lenin’s understanding, in the creation of the type of political organisation which history has demonstrated was indispensable for the working class to achieve and maintain state power, was not only of the discipline in action needed to wage such a struggle but in it being the sole means by which it could arrive at an accurate understanding of that struggle. Marx and Engels had already noted in theoretical terms that: ‘the real intellectual wealth of the individual depends entirely on the wealth of his real connections’. But from this, of course, it follows that the real intellectual wealth of any actual individual is limited because of the limits of a single individual. It was the Leninist political organisation that instead alone was able to arrive at an understanding of the fundamental development of the class struggle. As Lenin put it in What is to be Done: ‘Class political consciousness can be brought… only from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers. The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relationships of all classes and strata to the state and the government, the sphere of the interrelations between all classes…. To bring political knowledge to the workers the Social Democrats [pre-1917 name for Marxists] must go among all classes of the population; they must dispatch units of their army in all directions.’
Lenin thereby created, in the type of political organisation that bears his name, the means by which the class struggle could not only be waged but understood. It was this which history has confirmed is the indispensable condition for the victory of the working class. It is for that reason that the theory the October Revolution created is legitimately known as Marxism-Leninism. Lenin did not contradict but he built on Marx, and adding Lenin to Marx’s name did not reflect ‘faith in an individual’ but merely that in the enormous class struggle in Russia waged for over half a century every theory and every leader was tested in practice until one succeeded – the Bolshevik Party. And every case in which the working class has succeeded in sustaining power since has only confirmed that lesson of October.
It is for this reason that the October Revolution is the great break between the past and our present not only objectively but subjectively. October created the modern world. This remains the great difference to ‘If you seek a monument look around you’. The October Revolution is not dead, it is still living. Its footprint can still be seen to be shaping the situation in every part of our planet.