October 1917 – Why the Bolsheviks won

Women learning to read and write in rural Soviet Union 1931

By Sammy Barker


The October revolution of 1917 was the single most important event of the twentieth century. For the first time in human history a state was established, and stabilised, that represented the interests of the labouring majority in society. Society’s resources were to be utilised to advance the welfare, living standards and ambitions of the workers and peasants. The old exploiting classes – the nobility, landlords and capitalists – were stripped of the privileges which they possessed through robbery, deceit, arbitrary violence and grinding exploitation.

The course of the twentieth century was in large part shaped by the attempts of all the major imperialist powers to overthrow the Soviet state. Two periods of direct military action were undertaken; from 1917 – 1920 involving the US, Britain, France, Germany, Japan and lesser allies totalling 14 states in all; and from 1941- 1945 by Nazi Germany and its fascist allies. Economic and diplomatic blockades were undertaken, with greater or lesser sanctions, throughout the existence of the Soviet state from 1917 – 1991. The anti- Soviet military alliance assumed permanent form with the establishment of NATO in 1949, allowing the US to orchestrate the imposition of a crippling military burden upon the USSR. The imperialist powers also waged a continuous ideological offensive to create a distorted and repulsive image of the workers’ state for their own domestic population. Large scale resources were diverted from productive use in order to guarantee a continuing class war against the Soviet state. This war may have run hot or cold, overt or covert, brutal or subtle, yet it ran without interruption.

The battle followed from the material threat to the bourgeois order that the October revolution created. It explains why the bourgeoisie today retains a hostile course towards other states founded upon the principles of socialism, such as China, Vietnam, Cuba and Venezuela. The imperialists believe their continued domination rests not simply on the reproduction of capitalism, but also on the destruction of any viable alternative. In this manner, their defeat from October continues to haunt them. Just so it offers inspiration today, to those in the world opposing all forms of exploitation and oppression.

A change in the balance of forces

The establishment of the Soviet state represented a fundamental change in the balance of forces between the two international classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. This was not simply, or even mostly, by the power of a good example. Much more, it was the establishment of an institution which would support the struggles of the oppressed and working class throughout the world.

The working class had received a tremendous blow when the majority of its leadership supported their own governments’ participation in the inter-imperialist war in 1914. Prior to this the socialist movement had grown gradually, but apparently irresistibly.

Inside the imperialist societies powerful socialist parties and trade unions had emerged. The bourgeoisie had been forced to adapt to the weight of these movements. Indeed it attempted to incorporate them – thus in Britain “One Nation Toryism” and “Lib-Labism”, in Germany Bismarck’s welfare policies, and in France the entry of Millerand into government. For the most part the domestic concessions offered were paid for by the workers’ organisations deferring to colonial and imperial projects abroad. Nonetheless, however qualified, it appeared that the movements were advancing, and the capitalist class was being forced to tack to avoid being overturned.

1914 changed that. The majority of the existing leaderships of the workers’ organisations drew them into direct and unequivocal alliance with “their” national bourgeoisie. The mobilisation of the working class for a numerically unprecedented common slaughter could not have been effectively achieved without the direct participation of these opportunist leaders. In exchange for surrendering their political independence, they reassured themselves with the anticipation they would receive the gratitude of the capitalist class after victory was secured.

Instead, as was evident by 1919, every one of the major powers witnessed a post war assault upon the working class by the bourgeoisie. Gratitude was never in shorter supply.

Given that the working class internationally had been divided into supporting the different powers in contention, it was evident that the working class could not participate, as a class, in victory. Only as subordinate allies to one or other national section of the bourgeoisie could victory be envisaged. This is the sense in Kautsky’s dictum that the International was an instrument for peacetime, not during war.

In these conditions the victory of the Bolsheviks, with their demand for an immediate peace with no annexations or territorial gains, amounted to a reassertion of the independent movement of the workers and oppressed. Across the belligerent nations, sections of the troops and sections of the organised workers rallied to the Bolshevik call. In France and Britain there were mutinies, and dissolution of troop morale. In Germany there was a rising of revolutionary forces leading to the overthrow of the Kaiser, and the re-emergence of mass anti-capitalist currents. Even in the US, the biggest beneficiary of the war, a serious minority in the workers movement aligned itself to the October revolution.

Suddenly all the belligerent powers were faced with an enemy of a much more permanent and common threat than the apparently endless rivalry between them. Hence it was no surprise that, despite the supposed “principled” conflict between the Entente and Central Powers, both sides invaded Russian territory in an attempt to overthrow the Soviet state.

This had nothing to do with defending or restoring democracy. For the Entente, both the British Empire and the French Empire had been happy to cooperate with the autocracy of Tsarism. The Central Powers were themselves made up of the semi-autocracy of the German state, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. After the February revolution overthrew Tsarism, the British and French governments were directly involved in the attempt to establish a military dictatorship under Kornilov.

Whatever the outcome of the 1914-18 war, the international bourgeoisie, across the nation states, recognised that the acquisition of political power by tens of millions of soviet workers and peasants was the first herald of the final defeat of the bourgeois order.

Why did the revolution occur?

The Russian state in 1917 combined a feudal governing structure upon a developing capitalist mode of production. Landlordism continued to dominate agriculture which itself accounted for nearly 80% of the population. The capitalist sectors of the economy were dominated by foreign capital, particularly foreign banks.

“Heavy industry (metal, coal, oil) was almost wholly under the control of foreign finance capital, which had created for itself an auxiliary and intermediate system of banks in Russia. Light industry was following the same road. Foreigners owned in general about 40 per cent of all the stock capital of Russia, but in the leading branches of industry that percentage was still higher. We can say without exaggeration that the controlling stock in the Russian banks, plants and factories were to be found abroad, the amount held in England, France and Belgium being almost double that in Germany.” (1)

It was integrated into the imperialist world system, despite and through the backwardness of the political structure. In an unequal alliance with British and French imperialism it suffered greater casualties in the inter-imperialist conflict. Russian military deaths being 2,250,000 compared to Britain losing 880,000 and France 1,390,000. At once the victim of exploitation by the more developed imperialist powers, the Russian state and bourgeoisie was at the same time the beneficiary of the process. These powers defended the Great Russian domination of minority nationalities, for example in Poland and Finland. The Russian state also stood to benefit with territorial gains from the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, albeit on a modest scale in comparison with the anticipated seizure of much of the Middle East by Britain and France.

The Russian state was then an imperialist power, although a backward one, whose international position made it the weakest link in the imperialist chain that dominated the world.

“The superficially paradoxical fact that the first victim to suffer for the sins of the world system was the bourgeoisie of a backward country, is in reality quite according to the law of things. Marx had already indicated its explanation for his epoch: “Violent outbursts take place sooner in the extremities of the bourgeois organism than the heart, because here regulation is more possible”. Under the monstrous burdens of imperialism that state must necessarily fall first which had not yet accumulated a large national capital, but to which world competition offers no special privileges. The collapse of Russian capitalism was a local avalanche in a universal social formation. “A correct appraisal of our revolution,” said Lenin “is possible only from an international point of view.” (2)

This revolution broke the order that many socialists in the Second International had anticipated. Marx and Engels writings had generally predicated the revolution would occur first in the most developed countries. The assumption being that the class conflict was clearest where the bourgeoisie had elaborated capitalism to its fullest extent, hence facing the largest presence of the working class. Towards the end of Marx’s life the first qualifications of this appear. Marx and Engels agreed that the bourgeoisie in Britain had successfully integrated the workers movement and leadership, British monopoly in the world market making this possible. Equally, Marx in correspondence with the Russian revolutionary, Vera Zasulich, in 1881, noted exceptional features in Russian society and economic development meaning that its development may not simply reproduce the course of the major capitalist powers to its west.

In the case of Britain, the conclusions about the corruption of the movement, drawn by Marx and Engels would not have been palatable to leaders of the International who believed, along with Bernstein, that “the movement was everything and the final goal nothing.” In the case of Russia, the correspondence with Zasulich was unknown outside a handful of people. According to David Ryzanov, the great Marxist scholar, it was not finally widely published until 1924 (3).

The general assumption among socialists therefore was that Russia’s backwardness meant that a revolution in Russia first had to solve problems associated with the uncompleted bourgeois revolution. The revolution that began in February 1917 would therefore, this argument went, be bourgeois in class character, and result in placing the bourgeoisie in power, while the proletariat would thereby have the opportunity to learn how to struggle for socialism in the context of having bourgeois-democratic rights. For socialists with such a perspective the Bolsheviks, who were for a new, socialist revolution, and their leadership of the October revolution, represented an adventure outside the path of national development. Inside and outside Russia, activists who held this dogmatised version of socialism drew the conclusion that the attempt to go beyond a bourgeois revolution was an objective impossibility, would lead to disaster and meant it was better to support the bourgeoisie against the October revolution.

Bewilderment at the turn of events in Russia was not confined to the opportunists. Even as gifted a revolutionary as Antonio Gramsci wrote an article in December 1917, titled, “The Revolution Against Capital”. He interpreted Marx’s “Capital” to mean that “…in Russia a bourgeoisie had to develop, and a capitalist era had to open, with the setting up of a Western-type civilization, before the proletariat could even think in terms of its own revolt, its own class demands, its own revolution … The Bolsheviks reject Karl Marx, and their explicit actions and conquests bear witness that the canons of historical materialism are not so rigid as might have been thought” (4). Of course, being Gramsci, he supported the October revolution, even if he was unable to theorise its continuity with classical Marxism. But the danger in his suggestion that the Bolsheviks had broken with Marx was that this was exactly the cover Kautsky and other opportunists used to denounce the Bolsheviks.

Even inside the Bolsheviks Lenin had had to wage an all-out struggle to ensure that the party grasped the dynamics of the revolution opened in February. Upon his return to Russia he issued the “April Theses” which insisted that the task after February was not to consolidate a bourgeois regime, but to continue to extend the revolution uninterruptedly towards the seizure of power by the working class and peasantry. This meant complete separation from the bourgeoisie, landlords and remnants of Tsarism. The seriousness of this fight is evident by the fact that he encountered opposition from inside the Central Committee, from the editors of the main Bolshevik paper Pravda, and from inside the Petrograd District Committee, a city where there was the largest concentration of the working class. Lenin’s success was down to his arguments connecting with aspirations of the workers themselves. His position was also validated by the unfolding demonstration that the bourgeois led Provisional Government issuing from February was unable to solve any of the problems posed by the revolution.

Reflecting on this in 1923, Lenin analysed the dogmatists, still wishing to claim a socialist heritage despite their failure to support the October revolution: “ …up to now they have seen capitalism and bourgeois democracy in Western Europe follow a definite path of development, and cannot conceive that this path can be taken as a model only mutatis mutandi, only with certain amendments … It does not occur to any of them to ask: but what about a people that found itself in a revolutionary situation such as that created during the first imperialist war? Might it not, influenced by the hopelessness of its situation, fling itself into a struggle that would offer it at least some chance of securing conditions for the further development of civilisation that were somewhat unusual? … If a definite level of culture is required for the building of socialism (although nobody can say just what that definite “level of culture” is, for it differs in every West European country), why cannot we begin by first achieving the prerequisites for that definite level of culture in a revolutionary way, and then, with the aid of the workers’ and peasants’ government and the Soviet system, proceed to overtake the other nations?” (5)

Rather than allow the revolutionary struggle of the oppressed to be headed off by the bourgeoisie, the Bolsheviks won the right to lead by outlining the course of action needed to address the most crucial problems facing society in the Russian empire. Their political alternative to the destruction wrought by the bourgeoisie secured the overwhelming support of the workers and peasants, allowing the revolution to enter the “construction of the socialist order”.

Two strategies – relying on the working class or the bourgeoisie?

Lenin’s strategy was successful because he understood that the working class’s interests could only be achieved if it addressed the problems of society as a whole. Capitalism subordinated all other oppressed classes and groups to the domination of the bourgeoisie. Socialism must therefore draw together all the social forces which experienced oppression under capitalism and in class society in general. Only by a counter-hegemonic strategy could the domination of the bourgeoisie be overturned.

The bourgeoisie did not simply unite all the class forces which were exploiters under capitalism – capitalists, landlords and financiers/bankers. It also organised its support amongst the petty bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Amongst the petty bourgeoisie, it offered careers in state and governance for the intelligentsia, economic encouragement for small businesses and the promise of land reform for the peasantry. Within the proletariat, it drew in the labour aristocracy, and bureaucracy inside the workers organisations, promising concessions and work based on the functioning of imperialism, and the resources gained from defeated rivals and the colonies.

Lenin grasped that political strategy had to include promoting divisions within the bourgeoisie and exploiters, win over the largest possible part of the petty bourgeoisie, in particular the peasantry, and secure an absolute majority within the working class. Hence it was necessary to support the rights of self-determination, including the right to separation, even when many of the oppressed nations were dominated by their national bourgeoisie. It was necessary to support the abolition of landlordism, even at the risk of the strengthening of the richest sections of the peasantry (kulaks). And it was necessary to guarantee the interests of the poorest and most oppressed sections of the working class, even at the risk of opposition from the most economically comfortable and well organised sections of the working class.

The essential point being that Lenin’s strategy ensured that an active majority could thus be established. For inside the Tsarist Empire, the revolution in February and every major conflict leading up to October demonstrated that there was a majority that wanted national freedom, land to those who would work it, and that industry should be developed to meet the needs of society as a whole. Linking all these demands was the need to end the war which was destroying the population and its resources. Lenin’s hegemonic strategy was to save the country from the depredations of the bourgeoisie. That could be understood and supported by the majority of the population.

What the majority of the population could not tolerate in 1917 was the bourgeoisie’s continued postponement of solving every serious question that was raised to the forefront by the February revolution. The Russian bourgeoisie refused to respect the demands of the minority nationalities. The inter-imperialist war was about carving up the colonies and subject nations across the world. To allow for the elementary freedom of self-determination would damage Russia’s acquisitive allies in Britain and France.

The Russian bourgeoisie would not meet the peasant demands for a radical land reform. It relied upon the landlords to maintain stability in the countryside. To divide up the estates would remove its staunchest allies. Further, changing property relations in the countryside would inevitably encourage the urban working class to seek a change in the exploitative relations of production in industry.

The Russian bourgeoisie could not meet the working class demands for a new order inside the factories, shops and offices. It needed to maintain super-exploitative relations with its domestic working class because its own relative weakness in the world market meant it could not otherwise compete with the other imperialist powers. This, plus, its financial domination by the stronger powers, absolutely reduced its room for manoeuvre.

And finally, the Russian bourgeoisie could not extract itself from the desperately unpopular war. The attempt to break the military impasse by the June 1917 Russian offensive against Germany was instrumental in discrediting the bourgeois parties, Cadets and Octobrists, and the compromisers in the Social Revolutionaries (SRs) and Mensheviks.

Although the autocracy had been ousted, the post February governments could not carry out the type of reforms that the other imperialist powers had substantially addressed in their national history. Unable to carry through a bourgeois revolution these governments promised to ‘examine’ all claims, but met none.

The Bolsheviks strategy was successful because it above all promoted the alliance of the working class and peasantry over every other social force. All of the other left parties, the SRs, Mensheviks & Left Mensheviks insisted that the bourgeoisie had to be part of the national government. The SRs and Mensheviks tolerated both bourgeois parties, and individual bourgeois politicians inside government. The Left Mensheviks were prepared to support the idea of a government solely of left parties. But when the SRs and Mensheviks refused to accept a coalition without the bourgeoisie, the Left Mensheviks capitulated. Instead of breaking with the “compromisers”, Martov, Sukhanov and the other Left Menshevik leaders broke with the Bolsheviks, becoming a sorry, protesting, tail of the bourgeoisie. All of these forces assumed a left government in Russia without the bourgeoisie must end in disaster. To this end, not only did the SRs and Mensheviks support the continuation of the war, they also allied themselves with the armies of counter-revolutionaries that the landlords and bourgeoisie sent against the soviet workers and peasants.

Similar parties have made this same choice internationally ever since 1917. On not one occasion has this led to a socialist state. This so-called practical choice against supposed “utopian” or “sectarian” choices has been systematically unsuccessful.

Reducing the struggle for socialism to only “feasible” reforms and measures which are acceptable to the capitalism did not avoid a reckoning with the bourgeoisie when it no longer tolerated the feasibility of reformism. In Europe during the 1920s and 1930s the reformists were unable to prevent the bourgeoisie supporting fascism in Italy, Germany and Spain, or utilising depression economics against the working class in Britain and France.

A coup-d’état?

The suggestion that the insurrection of October was simply a coup-d’état organised by the Bolsheviks does not survive serious scrutiny, although it is a smear with a century long pedigree. In a country of 160 million people it is no small matter to take state power. It is even more difficult if you intend not merely to take control of the existing state institutions, but to replace these with new institutions to promote different property and economic relations. A party of 240,000 revolutionaries, as was the Bolsheviks in October 1917, could not achieve this behind the backs of the huge population.

All the reports of the seizure of power affirm that the old state apparatus and bureaucracy actively sabotaged the Bolsheviks assumption of power. Ministerial staff went on strike (paid for by bourgeois sources), hid finance and assets, refused to hand over state documents, international treaties and agreements. In no case was the introduction of the Peoples Commissars to the old ministry apparatus accepted by the majority of the existing staff. From the beginning, cooperation was only achieved through the threat of coercion. This completely contrasts with most coups, where the plotters, once successful, can usually count upon the support from the state bureaucracy.

Coercion can be applied for short periods to guarantee the cooperation of recalcitrant bureaucrats. But what cannot be done is to coerce the majority of society into accepting a fundamental change of direction. The overturning of landlordism in the countryside required the active participation of the majority of the peasantry. A party the size of Lenin’s could not intimidate tens of millions of peasants. But it could lead them.

Much of the civil war from 1917 to 1920 revolved around the issue of landlordism. The experience of the peasantry was that the Bolsheviks supported those who worked the land keeping it. Their experience of the White armies was that their generals returned the landlords to the countryside. Both sides of the civil war took the terrible measures that war necessitates, though the Bolsheviks resorted to the Red Terror only in response to the White. Arms were used to maintain peasant holdings, or to return them to the former owners. The peasants made a rational and progressive choice, to throw their lot in with the workers organisations, party and state. If the Bolsheviks had not secured the support of the peasantry they would not have survived weeks, let alone over three years of intensive war over vast geographic fronts. Unlike the Whites, the Bolsheviks had no external state support, only domestic resources.

“Not by compromise with the propertied classes, or with the other political leaders; not by conciliating the old Government mechanism, did the Bolsheviks conquer the power. Nor by the violence of a small clique. If the masses all over Russia had not been ready for insurrection it must have failed. The only reason for Bolshevik success lay in their accomplishing the vast and simple desires of the most profound strata of the people, calling them to the work of tearing down and destroying the old, and afterwards, in the smoke of falling ruins, cooperating with them to erect the framework of the new.” (6)

Soviet state power – the issue of the proletarian dictatorship

The October revolution created a new type of state. The Bolsheviks recognised the soviets as the organisations which articulated the struggle of the oppressed. The working class in the factories, shops and offices created factory committees and sent their elected representatives to the soviets. The workers and peasants in uniforms – soldiers and sailors – created their own battalion committees and sent their representatives to the soviets. The peasants in the countryside created their land committees to divide the estates, and sent their representatives to the soviets. In the oppressed nations, soviets were established which sought coalition with the Russian soviets.

In even the most democratic, bourgeois republic the elected officials are detached from their electorate by the infrequency of elections. The rewards and privileges of elected representatives also create a significantly higher standard of living than that experienced by their electorate. Further, the separation of powers between the elected legislature, and the unelected executive forces of the state, means that the policy is implemented by different people to those who formulated it. This creates inevitable opportunities to change, distort or overturn the policy agreed by the legislature. This is not so important if there is harmony of intention between a bourgeois government and its civil service, but is clearly a problem should radical politicians have to deal with an unreformed bureaucracy.

The soviets solved all these problems. Soviet delegates were instantly recallable, and elections were frequent. The remuneration for those who served full time in the soviets was those of the electorate who sent them, or those of an average skilled worker. These measures made the soviets sensitive to change and developments amongst the electorate, and limited the avenues for outright careerists.

Equally important, the soviets organised the executive of their own decisions, through the unmediated action of the delegates and the organisations that comprised the electoral base of the soviet. The workers took control of the factories, the peasants took control of the lands, the soldiers organised the defence militias.

Parties were not dissolved in this process. They were directly involved in all the functions of the soviets and the mass organisations. They fought for their policies, but shouldered the burden of the decisions. This meant that the soviets were also an expression of the united front of the masses against the landlords, bourgeoisie and other oppressive class forces.

Marxism rightly analyses that every state power is an organised expression of the domination of a particular class over others. Under capitalism the power of the bourgeoisie has been asserted in a wide variety of political forms – from the democratic republic to fascism. All of these forms maintain private property in the means of production, albeit with different degrees of limits on the prerogative of property owners

But in all conditions, the political framework sustains the reproduction of capital for capitalists. In this sense, Nazi Germany and contemporary France are both expressions of the social dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. From the point of view of socialists, there is no question of which is most desirable in allowing the workers and oppressed the freest development of their powers. Yet both of them are an obstacle to the achievement of socialism – even the most democratic republic will be integral to the international system that reproduces exploitation and oppression.

What applies to the bourgeois state also applies to the proletarian state. It can be expressed in a wide variety of political forms which will make a big difference to the development of the class struggle, and the chances of continued survival and success. The base committees of the state, soviets or similar, can operate with a good deal, or very little democracy. In times of war – civil or between states – the prerogatives of the working class can be much reduced. But if the political function of the state is to act as a transitional form in the struggle for a classless society (socialism), then that is an expression of the social dictatorship of the proletariat.

The political functioning of the soviet state throughout its existence varied from the multi-party periods in 1917-18 and 1920, to the rigid and repressive regime of the late 30’s. There is no doubt which was preferable for those who lived through it. But despite the unnecessary overheads – expensive at times of the material wealth and population – the continued existence of the workers state was preferable to the restoration of a bourgeois state.

The social policy of October

The social policy of the Bolsheviks was enacted through a series of decrees carried at soviet congresses, and the council of People’s Commissars. Unlike bourgeois politicians, the Bolsheviks turned word into deed, enacting the most radical social programme the world had yet seen.

On the land question, the decree abolished private ownership of the land. The private estates were “placed at the disposition of the workers who cultivate them”. The riches beneath the earth – oil, coal, minerals, etc. – became the exclusive property of the state. The right to use the land was granted to all citizens, without distinction of gender. Pensions were offered to aged farmers unable to work the land. Land allocation was equalised. The gross inequalities and burdens suffered by the working farmers and labourers remaining from the land reforms of 1861, and the Stolypin reforms at the start of the 20th century, were thus overcome, in line with the demands of the rural population. The takeover was carried through and maintained through the local elected land committees of that population.

“Since the 1905 revolution, Russia has been governed by 130,000 landowners, who have perpetrated endless violence against 150,000,000 people, heaped unconstructed abuse upon them, and condemned the vast majority to inhuman toil and semi-starvation.” (7)

On the issue of the war, an immediate armistice and democratic peace was offered without loss to any nation. The offer was peace without annexation and without indemnities. Armistice was concluded on the Russian Front. This was backed up with the consistent application of the policy of self-determination, including the right to separation by the minority nations of the Russian empire. “Every nation must decide its own fate. There must be no oppressing of one nation by another”. Ending the war had an impact upon the entire population. The nationalities policy affected the majority of the population in the Russian empire, 57 per cent of the population having a nationality other than Russian. In contrast, a century later the major imperialist powers have military forces currently based, or engaged, in dozens of less powerful nations.

On the economy, the banks were immediately nationalised, while guaranteeing the interests of small depositors. The immediate policy on industry was to implement workers control through the medium of factory committees. In practice the campaign of sabotage and closures by the capitalists meant that much of industry had to be taken into state hands. This was further accelerated by the needs of the civil war. Once the opportunity allowed a radical new economic policy (NEP) was introduced which allowed for some private markets and enterprises whilst maintaining state control of major economic decisions. This policy allowed the losses of the war years to be overcome, the economy grew larger than its pre-revolutionary size, and the rural population received the benefits of electrification.

The essential shift in the economy was to promote the welfare and interests of the workers and peasants over the former owners. This is well illustrated by the decree on social insurance. This was introduced for all wage earners, and the urban and rural poor. This covered loss of capacity through illness, childbirth, old age, orphanage, etc. Such a comprehensive programme was not introduced in the imperialist powers until after 1945, under the pressure of soviet social advances. “If you do not give the people reform they are going to give you social revolution”, Lord Hailsham.

On the position of women, the most thorough going process to liberate women was initiated. This article here examines this in depth. After a further century of women’s struggles most of the imperialist powers have yet to complete all the aims of the Bolsheviks.

On the army, a systematic reform was implemented whereby all ranks and grades were abolished. All soldiers were to be recognised as “free and equal citizens”. All privileges of rank were abolished, along with marks of distinction, and address by title. All separate officers’ organisations were abolished. The soldiers committees of soviets had full authority within the limits of military units and combinations. Election of commanding staff and officers was introduced. Up to 12 million had been under arms in the Russian empire, and these armed forces were now disintegrating. These immediate reforms were later supplemented by the establishment of a new Red Army, which was organised on the above principles. The elementary rights of soldiers are not recognised in the imperialist powers today.

A decree abolished all privileges arising from classes and titles. The property and institutions of the nobility, merchants and bourgeois organisations were transferred to local municipalities and soviets. Formal titles, classes and denomination of civil rank were abolished. Considering that a number of major imperialist powers are yet to become republics, it is evident how thoroughgoing the repudiation of feudal and bourgeois hierarchies was in the soviet republic.

On education the first aim was the conquest of universal literacy, in a country where illiteracy was a major issue. Although not immediately possible, the soviet regime allowed the introduction, eventually, of equal and higher education for all citizens. The immediate reforms meant that the pupil’s transition to a higher education was no longer dependent upon family resources, but upon aptitude. Support was extended to the widespread diffusion of culture and art, resulting in a hugely creative development of soviet society.

The extent and achievements of the post October social programme cannot be fully examined in a single article. But this was the most liberating programme that the world had yet seen. Little wonder that the international bourgeoisie was so repelled by the revolution.

Answering the national question

The classical heritage of Marx and Engels still had to be completed on the national question. Marx and Engels had supported the unification of the major European states, such as Germany and Italy. They had demonstrated their support for specific struggles against national oppression in Europe, notably in the cases of Ireland and Poland. They had supported the struggle against slavery and Confederate secession in the United States. But they had not completed a full study of colonialism.

The Second International had a programmatic ambiguity. The opportunist forces assumed that there would continue to be a colonial policy even after the socialists achieved governmental power. Matters came to a head at the 1907 Stuttgart Congress. A resolution was proposed which included the premise that Social Democrats “do not reject all colonial policies in all circumstances, such as those which, under a socialist regime, could serve a civilizing purpose”. This was defeated by only 127 votes to 108. Delegations supporting the resolution included the Germans, Dutch, Danes and Belgians. The French, British and Italian delegations votes were split. The majority was composed of the most consistent revolutionaries, together with the forces aligned around Kautsky who also opposed the resolution. The alternative resolution that was carried condemned the barbarous methods of capitalist colonialism, and stated “Only Socialism will offer all nations the possibility of developing freely their own forms of culture”. But the debate had not yet clarified the position, for no mention was made of either self-government or independence.

Thus the supporters of Kautsky had no difficulty in supporting the bourgeoisie’s war for colonies in 1914. Despite apparent agreement in 1907 there was a difference between the forces around Kautsky and the consistent revolutionaries, which played no small part in the different stances adopted in 1914. In a 1907 pamphlet, Kautsky wrote “The native uprisings to throw off foreign domination will always be certain of the sympathies of the fighting proletariat. But the armed might of the capitalist nations is so immense that it is not to be expected that any of these uprisings could come anywhere near their aim. As much as we understand such rebellions, and as deeply as we sympathise with the rebels, social democracy cannot encourage them, just as it does not support pointless proletarian putsches in Europe.”(8) Kautsky regarded the victory of the proletariat as a precondition for colonial freedom.

Lenin’s genius was demonstrated on this question. Prompted by the catastrophe of 1914, he embarked upon a profound study of imperialism as a political and economic system, and deepened his analysis of the issue of national oppression and the socialist programme. His major work “Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism”, and his writings on the rights of nations to self-determination theoretically clarified the ambiguities outstanding after the collapse of the Second International.

He maintained complete opposition to imperialism and its colonial policy. He demonstrated unambiguously that there remained nothing progressive in the imperialist powers maintaining hundreds of millions of people in national enslavement. Socialists must support the struggle of the colonies, regardless of the difference between “advanced” capitalist relations, and pre-capitalist economic formations. It is a matter of elementary democratic and human rights which the proletariat must support. Every oppressed nation has the right to self-determination, including the right to secede and gain independence. The imposition of colonial chains upon nations such as China, India and Iran was a total attack on these peoples and under no circumstances could it be tolerated by socialists.

He made a further distinction from the viewpoint of socialist strategy. Socialists in countries suffering national oppression may or may not advocate separation. This was entirely tactical. A concrete analysis would reveal whether separation would best develop the struggle of the oppressed and working class, or not. Defending national rights were part of the programme but did not supersede the need to defend the international position of the working class.

Lenin had long recognised the need for adapting education and cultural provision where different nationalities lived together with in a single state: ”a consistently and thoroughly democratic republican system of government which guarantees full equality of all nations and languages, which provides the people with schools where instruction is given in all the native languages, and the constitution of which contains a fundamental law that prohibits any privileges whatsoever to any one nation and any encroachment whatsoever upon the rights of a national minority.”(9)

Overall this meant that in 1917, with the victory of October, the Bolsheviks implemented a programme which distinguished them from every previous government in the world. A series of nations, including Finland and Poland, were allowed to secede from the Russian state. At the same time the Bolsheviks began a programme of supporting the anti-colonial struggle in societies dominated by imperialism, and among developing nations wishing to maintain independence from imperialism, such as Turkey under Ataturk. This article here examines the international significance of the Bolsheviks policy.

Lenin’s policy did not prevent the bourgeoisie in the newly independent nations from aligning with imperialism, and hence surrendering their “independence”. Even that helped to demonstrate that the workers movement in these nations was the sole guarantor of their national freedom. Where separation did not occur the policy demonstrated a respect for the national culture and social aspirations of the smaller nations who chose to remain in the federation, and later USSR.

Of course, Lenin grasped that the prejudices of the Tsarist Empire, including Great Russian chauvinism and anti-Semitism, were not simply overcome by the establishment of the Soviet republic. His last writings amply testify to his determination unto death to practically confront and overcome institutional and non-institutional discrimination against minority nationalities. The subsequent reduction of national rights within the USSR was a by-product of the conservative bureaucracy that overturned much of his policy.

One thing is clear, that his writings on the national question remain the best guide for socialists to this day. Trotsky, writing in 1930, put it aptly: “Whatever may be the further destiny of the Soviet Union – and it is still far from a quiet haven – the national policy of Lenin finds its place among the eternal treasures of mankind”. (10)

The comparison between the soviet state and the imperialist powers

The contrast between imperialism and the soviet state are stark. All the imperialist countries held colonies which they intended to hold onto. The Versailles peace conference whilst allegedly supporting self-determination did not recognise most of the countries struggling for national freedom, whether they were as small as Ireland, or as populous as India. In the case of the Ottoman territories, with the assignment of mandatory powers to Britain and France, and in the distribution of former German colonies, there was no trace of the populations concerned deciding anything.

Equally, the claims to represent democracy were fragile in every instance. In no major imperialist power was there universal adult suffrage – restrictions by gender, age and property qualification were still being tackled. Focusing on the Bolsheviks’ removal of the franchise from the exploiters to claim they were anti-democratic was credible only by overlooking the domestic practices of the “free” nations.

The Bolsheviks policy remained consistent, despite having to oversee a society crippled by interstate and civil wars between 1914 and 1920. At every point the soviet government promoted the liberation of the colonies; the enfranchisement of the oppressed; and the struggle of workers and toilers for rising standards of living and culture. In contrast, the imperialist powers waged horrifying wars upon the colonial peoples; retained repressive domestic legislation – yielding the extension of the franchise grudgingly; and waged unremitting struggles against the unions, organisations of the unemployed and those opposing economic stagnation and austerity in the domestic economy.

In contemporary bourgeois ideology the horrors of the inter-war years are forgotten. Instead the difficulties and tragedies of the Stalin period are singled out. Apparently the only possible comparison is with Hitler’s Nazi regime. The revolutionary significance of the soviet state had to be buried beneath a mountain of calumny and amnesia.

Yet any clear examination of the past overturns this. The major fascist powers, Germany and Italy, retained the capitalist economic formation, massively increasing the rate of profit through a devastating defeat of the workers organisations. Italy, during the 1920s, and Germany from 1933 to the late 30’s were regarded sympathetically in ruling circles in the US, Britain and France. The non-intervention of these powers while the fascist states intervened in the Spanish civil war was an expression of their preference for a fascist victory over a possible revolution inside Spain.

When it became evident that the momentum of the Nazis was towards a reversal of Versailles, and a new challenge for colonies, alarm bells rang in ruling circles in Britain and France. But co-existence with fascism had been envisaged, and even practiced by the dominant section of the British ruling class up to Munich.

Supporters of the USSR, along with other socialists, had fought against Italian fascism before it came to power, and ever since. The same was true of the experience of the Nazis. The senselessness of the equation of the soviet state with the Nazis is the fact that the largest number of those who died fighting fascism, and their Japanese militarist allies, came from the USSR, and the international communist and socialist movement. 27 million Soviet citizens died to bring down Hitler. The post-war inclusion of Japan amongst the democracies ignores the fact that for the first half of the 20th century it was a monarchical military dictatorship. Around 30 million Chinese died opposing this regime from 1931 to 1945. In comparison total deaths for Britain were 450,900, for France 600,000 and for US 419,000.

Even this record understates the difference. The bourgeoisie’s favourite method is to count the victims of socialist regimes, both real and mythical. . Yet only a full historical context allows for a true measure.

Much of the initial capital accumulation in the “take off” of European capital came from gold and silver arriving in Europe from the genocide practiced upon the original peoples of the Americas. Capitalism developed as an international market through the triangular trade in slaves, between Africa, the Americas and Caribbean and Europe. European colonisation developed through massacres of the indigenous populations. The adaption of the colonial economies to the metropolitan capitalist system involved terrible destruction to the traditional subsistence economies, the long term losses were suffered solely by the colonised peoples. Racism was theorised, and entrenched, decade after decade, as proof that such practices were necessary and justified.

In the metropolitan centres capitalism meant generations of workers, and their communities, suffering relentless toil and hardship. Every protection or regulation achieved in making labour less brutal and dangerous had numberless antecedents in bodies damaged and limbs severed by machinery or process. Every one of the regular economic crises saw millions made workless, homeless, hungry, destitute and desperate. Every war plucked out the youth, drove them to take and lose lives with people they couldn’t understand, for purposes other than those they were given. And every generation had to fight for its few rights from an every resisting ruling class.

Whatever the failings of the first soviet power, they fall far short of the record of imperialism before, during and after the 20th century – especially if we use their measure of the body count.


The restoration of capitalism in the countries of the former USSR created a social catastrophe. By 1998 the Russian Federation’s GDP was 57.7 per cent of its 1990 total. In the Ukraine the figure was 41.1 per cent. In the Baltic States the percentage of the population in poverty rose from 1 per cent in 1987-88 to an average of 29 per cent in 1993-95. Per capita annual average growth rate in the former USSR taken as a whole, fell from +3.36 per cent in the period 1950-73 to -6.86 per cent in the period 1990-98 (11).

The collapse of the economy, along with the rise of a social crisis, was the price of restoring capitalism. However one understood the weaknesses of the Soviet state the answer was not the impoverishment of large sections of the population to fund a new bourgeoisie, and a new system of exploitation.

The successes of the industrialisation of the USSR in the 1930s were sufficient to save it, and in the process the rest of the world, from the Nazi onslaught. From 1913-50, 12 western European countries, including France, Germany, Italy and Britain, grew by on average by 2.14 per cent. The countries of the former USSR grew by 2.40 per cent in the same period. From 1950-73, the same 12 countries grew by an average 4.65 per cent, while the USSR grew by 4.84 per cent (12). This was nowhere near enough to “catch up and surpass” the capitalist west, but it demonstrates that the USSR was a relatively economically successful state.

Average life expectancy in Western Europe in 1900 was 46; by 1950 it had risen to 67. Average life expectancy in Russia in 1900 was 32, by 1950 it had risen to 65 (13). There is no clearer measure of social progress and social welfare than life expectancy. The revolution unleashed a burst of social progress that doubled the life expectancy of Soviet citizens, while in the West it grew by less than 50 per cent. The living standards of the population could be so raised because the bourgeoisie no longer existed to sequester much of the social product.

It is interesting to consider what would have happened if a less autarkic economic policy had been pursued in the 1930s in the USSR. The industrialisation demonstrated the superiority of the soviet led economy over the preceding Russian capitalism, and a lead was set in social provision and technological development. But the economy could not be fully developed in isolation from the world market, and the most developed economies.

The lessons of Lenin’s NEP were not remembered. Not only did he propose to retain some market mechanisms, and private markets, to adjust and develop the state sector. He also proposed in his writings on “Concessions” to allow private capital from abroad to help develop the economy of the USSR. Stalin’s course eliminated all market mechanisms and suppressed not only bourgeois but even petty-bourgeois property. The USSR continued this policy fundamentally from 1929 until its end. Lenin’s dynamic view of the future of the Soviet economy would have allowed a different course of growth to that promoted by Stalin and supporters. The Chinese experience since 1978, hugely successful and lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, is much closer to Lenin’s policy than Stalin’s.

Writing of her experience of watching the newly formed Red Guard go into battle in 1917, Louise Bryant wrote: “The city workers are smaller than the peasants: they are stunted and pale, but they fight like demons. Lately they have put up the most desperate resistance to the Germans in Finland and the Ukraine. In this particular battle with the Cossacks they were so unused to warfare that they forgot to fire off their guns. But they did not know the meaning of defeat. When one line was mowed down another took its place. Women ran straight into the fire without any weapons at all. It was terrifying to see them; they were like animals protecting their young. The Cossacks seemed to be superstitious about it. They began to retreat. The retreat grew into a rout. They abandoned their artillery, their fine horses, they ran back miles…..” and “For the first time I visualised Washington and his starving, ragged army at Valley Forge…. I felt suddenly that the revolution must live in spite of temporary military defeat, in spite of internal strife, in spite of everything”.(14)

Those workers, those women made history as certainly as George Washington and his fighters. 1917 changed the world forever. For socialists today, there is nothing to apologise for, nothing to decry. The correct stance is to study and celebrate the October revolution – the birth of our power.


1. L.Trotsky “History of the Russian Revolution” Vol.1, pp. 27-28

2. L.Trotsky “History of the Russian Revolution” Vol.3, pp. 349-350

3. In “Late Marx and the Russian Road”, Teodor Shanin, pp. 127-133

4. A.Gramsci “Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920”, pp. 34

5. V.Lenin “Our Revolution”, CW Vol.33, pp.477-479

6. J.Reed “Ten Days That Shook the World” pp.254

7. V.Lenin “Can the Bolsheviks retain state power?” CW Vol.26 pp.111

8. K.Kautsky “Socialism and Colonial Policy” Athol Books edition pp. 57

9. V.Lenin “Resolution on the national question”, CW Vol.19, pp. 427

10. L.Trotsky “History of the Russian Revolution” Vol.3, pp. 62

11. A.Maddison “The World Economy” pp. 157

12. Ibid pp. 187

13. Ibid pp. 32

14. L.Bryant “Six Red Months in Russia” pp. 122-123