People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 45

November 11, 2007

Celebrating The Bolshevik Revolution


Demonstration in Petrograd on June 18 (July 1), 1917.



Prabhat Patnaik


EVERY revolution is founded upon a leap in theory. Marxism itself had represented an enormous theoretical leap, the founding of a science of history as the basis for the revolutionary activity of the most advanced class of modern society; but within Marxism, there was a further theoretical leap upon which the Bolshevik Revolution was founded, a leap within a leap, which only confirmed the scientific validity of the first leap, and which was initiated by none other than Marx himself.


Marx’s original vision had encompassed a European Revolution, a revolution carried out in the advanced capitalist countries by a proletariat which had come to acquire revolutionary class consciousness through its experience of struggles. His remark that “the country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future” suggested that the less developed country had to first traverse the path that the more developed one had taken; it is only the latter that became ripe for revolution. Towards the end of his life, however, Marx turned his attention eastwards, to Russia, as a potential theatre of revolution. In correspondence with Vera Zasulich he recognised the possibility of Russia making a direct transition to socialism upon overthrowing her feudal order, on the basis of her extant underlying form of communal property, provided there was a European socialist revolution to sustain such a direct transition.


Russian Marxist revolutionaries led by Lenin differed from the Narodniks in asserting that communal property in Russia was no longer extant; it was “daily, hourly” being supplanted by the development of capitalism, which was simultaneously throwing up a modern proletariat. This proletariat alone could lead the Russian revolution. Since the bourgeoisie, having come late on the scene, was keen to strike compromises with Russian feudalism, it was the task of the proletariat to lead the bourgeois revolution in Russia to completion in alliance with the peasantry, and then to lead on to the proletarian revolution in alliance with the small peasantry and the semi-proletariat in the countryside. But they saw it as occurring not as an isolated historical event, a mere internal affair of Russia alone, but as part of a world revolutionary process.




The first world war heralded a revolutionary conjuncture. It was a war for the re-partitioning of a world that had already been partitioned among a handful of imperialist powers, each promoting the interests of “its” finance capital. Mankind was faced with the choice between socialism on the one hand and the barbarism of inter-imperialist world wars on the other; the proletariats of the leading capitalist countries were faced with the choice between killing their fellow-workers across the trenches or turning their guns against the rule of finance capital in their own countries. The imperialist war had to be turned into a civil war against the rule of capital. A revolutionary conjuncture had arrived, marked by the beginning of a general crisis of capitalism.


In this world revolutionary conjuncture, the chain of imperialism would break at its “weakest link”, but this breaking of the chain would see a world-wide revolutionary upsurge. It was not necessary that the revolution had to come first in the advanced capitalist countries. It could come anywhere, wherever the weakest link was, but it would be followed by a revolutionary upsurge elsewhere. And what is more, the revolutionary upsurge would also engulf colonies, semi-colonies, and dependencies in the third world, where of course the immediate tasks of the revolution would be anti-feudal, anti-colonial, and hence bourgeois democratic.


The weakest link in the chain at the time was Russia. A backward economy where capitalism had been developing within a feudal integument presided over by an autocracy headed by the Czar, it was at the same time remarkably well-developed in certain other respects. It had a remarkable revolutionary tradition, with hundreds of young women and men (including Lenin’s elder brother Alexander Ulyanov) sacrificing their lives, and thousands embracing exile and imprisonment, in the fight against Czarism; it had remarkable intellectual vibrancy, where, even more than in Marx’s own country Germany, Marxian ideas were accepted with alacrity and debated with passion and excitement; it had a remarkably class conscious proletariat, which despite its numerical smallness had a strategic strength because of its concentrated location, e.g. in the gigantic Putilov factory in the outskirts of the capital Petrograd (whose workers were to constitute the core of the revolution); it was marked by a general level of culture and passion for ideas among the masses that was extremely unusual (as narrated by Gorky for instance in his autobiography where he talks of the liking even among the common people for Pushkin and Lermontov); and it had developed a tradition of mass revolutionary action through the institution of Soviets, such as in the 1905 revolution, which was to act as a dress rehearsal for 1917.


Russia’s engagement in the war was the last straw that broke the back of the old order. The February revolution, even as it brought into being a Provisional Revolutionary government headed by Kerensky, was accompanied by the setting up of Soviets of workers and peasants and soldiers everywhere which demanded “land, peace and bread”. As the Kerensky government proved incapable of providing any of these and made compromises with the old order, this period of “dual power” was ended through an insurrection that transferred all power from the Provisional Government to the Soviets, in which the Bolsheviks had acquired a majority. The Bolsheviks, true to their word, ended the war through the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, even though it meant yielding considerable ground to the Germans, and even though the Treaty was opposed not only by the Left Social Revolutionaries, who were their partners in government, but also by the “Left Communists” within the Bolshevik Party itself, like Nikolai Bukharin.




The Bolshevik Revolution which led to the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat contained within itself a dual revolution: a socialist revolution that came into being after a brief attempt at “State Capitalism”, through the expropriation of large capitalist property, in a situation where the bourgeoisie was totally hostile to the revolution, in the context of the Civil War and encirclement by the major capitalist powers; and a peasant revolution in the countryside where large landed estates were taken over by the insurgent peasants.


The two stages of the revolution which Lenin had earlier theorized about and which had left their conceptual imprint on the Bolshevik programme that talked of establishing a “Revolutionary Democratic Dictatorship of Workers and Peasants”, had, under the exigencies of the situation, to be telescoped together under a Dictatorship of the Proletariat. The impact of this telescoping, and in general of the encirclement and aggression by imperialism against Revolutionary Russia (which was soon to become the Soviet Union), was a profound one on the relationship between the workers and the peasants. The correct handling of this relationship became a primary concern of the Soviet government. The saga of Lenin’s desperate efforts to preserve the smytchka (the worker-peasant alliance) even while ensuring food supplies to the cities at reasonable prices; the rapid shifts from the years of War Communism to the NEP, to the Scissors Crisis; the desperate bid to industrialise in a threatened backward economy dominated by peasant agriculture; the collectivisation drive and the deep imprint it left on the subsequent history of the Soviet Union; all of which are too well-known to need recounting here, were the obvious manifestations of this concern. Subsequent revolutions, like the Chinese revolution, being in a less desperate position than the early Soviet Union, were able to demarcate the stages of the revolution more clearly, under the conceptual framework of a “New democracy” or a “People's democracy”. But the travails of the Bolshevik Revolution underlined for all future revolutions the significance of the relationship between the workers and the peasants in the revolutionary process.


Contrary to what the Bolshevik leaders had anticipated, the October Revolution was not followed by a revolution in the West. There was a spate of revolutionary attempts in Germany, but none of them succeeded, even though in the process the lives of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Eugene Levine and many others were lost. By the early twenties it became clear that capitalism had for the time being stabilised itself and all hopes of immediate revolution anywhere in the advanced capitalist world had to be abandoned. Lenin, like Marx before him, began looking eastwards, and in one of his last writings expressed his optimism about the future of socialism by referring to the fact that Russia, China and India added up to a sizeable segment of humanity.




Lenin’s death was followed by the Great Depression, the rise of Nazism, and the second world war, all of which vindicated his analysis, led to a vast expansion of the socialist camp, and greatly weakened capitalism, forcing it to compromise by adopting measures of decolonisation, of Keynesian demand management and of welfare state orientation. But metropolitan capitalism survived, and over time consolidated itself. With the process of centralisation of capital gathering further momentum and leading to the emergence into a position of hegemony of a new form of international finance capital, it rolled back several of its welfare state measures, recreated substantial unemployment, re-acquired its explicitly predatory character, and began a drive towards re-colonisation in its world-wide quest for raw materials, especially oil.


The Soviet Union no doubt had developed major internal contradictions, arising in particular from the fact that the form of government through which the dictatorship of the proletariat was exercised was a dictatorship of the Party rather than Soviet democracy as originally visualised and practiced; but the change in the world conjuncture is what ultimately undermined its viability. Mankind nonetheless has to remain eternally grateful to the Soviet Union for having saved it from the horrors of fascism, for having forced capitalism to embark upon a process of decolonisation and for having shown to the world the enormous possibilities that socialism can unleash.


The Bolshevik Revolution constitutes the most significant episode till now in mankind’s long march towards freedom. It was the first attempt ever in the history of mankind to overcome the “spontaneity of history” and to erect consciously a set of structures in reality which were first erected in the imagination. In this long march towards freedom, there will be many ups and downs. The collapse of the Soviet Union was one such setback. The point however is to learn the correct lessons from it, so that we can ensure that the next revolutionary upsurge leaves behind a more enduring legacy. The Paris Commune had lasted only ninety days, and when the Bolshevik Revolution had completed ninety days Lenin had said with a touch of satisfaction: “we have lasted longer than the Paris Commune”! In the event, the Soviet Union lasted more than seventy years. The next time around there should be no slide-back.