People's Democracy

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


No. 45

November 06, 2011

Great November Revolution of 1917: Its Pledge for Rebirth

                                                                                                                                                     Sukomal Sen


“THE mighty sweep of the revolution in Russia, the profound results which have transformed all class relationships, raised all social and economic problems, and, with the fatality of their own inner logic, developed consistently from the first phase of the bourgeois republic to ever more advanced stages, finally reducing the fall of czarism to the status of a mere minor episode --- all these things show as plain as day that the freeing of Russia was not an achievement of the war and the military defeat of czarism, not some service of "German bay­onets in German fists," as Neue Zeit under Kautsky's editorship once promised in an editorial. They show, on the contrary, that the freeing of Russia had its roots deep in the soil of its own land and was fully matured internally.” 


This was how Rosa Luxemburg’s critical essay, The Russian Revolution of 1917, opened. Her analysis of the events in October 1917 was not published in her lifetime. German soldiers brutally murdered her on January 15, 1919. Though Luxemburg criticised the Bolsheviks on the agrarian policy, nationality question and maturity on the question of democracy and dictatorship, the main point here is that she emphasised the fact that Russian revolution was rooted in its soil and the situation there was quite mature for the revolution. It confirmed the Leninist conception of the “weakest link” and, subsequently, Stalin’s idea of building up socialism in one country.


It is not the purpose of this article to elaborately deal with Luxemburg’s critique; a few points have of course been referred to in the course of this discussion.




Before dealing with other aspects of the Revolution and its ultimate collapse, we would like to deal with Lenin’s “unity of thought,” which Georg Lukacs dwelt upon in his Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought.


Lenin is so much important for serious-minded socialists because of what Lukacs stressed as the core of his thought --- a deep belief in the actuality of revolution. In contrast to so many would be socialists, he did not see the capitalist status quo as a solid, unshakable ground. Rather his starting point was the opposite --- that the development of capitalism creates the basis for a working class revolution. What this means for a Marxist like Lenin is utilising revolutionary Marxism, as Lukacs put it, “to establish firm guidelines for all questions on the daily agenda, whether they were political or economic or involved theory of tactics, agitation or organisation.” Lenin believed that for victory, workers required a party fit to lead a revolution, and to him it meant a party with a revolutionary programme and leadership --- a party of revolutionists.     


Lenin’s revolutionary thought process can be compressed in 10 components:


1) Connecting socialism with the working class: Lenin's starting-point is an understanding of the necessary interconnection of socialist theory and practice with the working class and labour movement. The greatest service Karl Marx and Frederick Engels rendered was to effect a fusion of socialism with the working class move­ment, Lenin stressed, because the previous "separation of the working class movement and socialism gave rise to weakness and underdevelopment in each" --- the one remained abstract theorising and the other remained a fragmented and limited movement. The task of organised socialists is to bring definite socialist ideals to the spon­taneous working class movement, to connect this movement with the political struggle for democracy as a means of achieving socialism.  


2) Dealing with diversity within the working class: Inseparable from the above is a basic understanding of the working class as it is, which involves a grasp of the incredible diversity and unevenness of working class experience and consciousness. In one analysis he distinguished between "advanced" workers who might become members of the rev­olutionary party, "average" workers interested in immediate strug­gles as well as socialist ideas, and "the mass of the lower strata." This calls for the development of a practical revolutionary approach to deal with the working class.    


3) Political independence of the working class: Another essential ingredi­ent of Lenin's outlook is an insistence on the necessity of working­ class independence and hegemony in political and social struggles, as opposed to relying on pro-capitalist liberals. 


4) Working class struggle against all forms of oppression: Lenin also stressed the necessity for active socialist and working class support for struggles of all who suffer oppression. "Working class consciousness cannot be genuine political conscious­ness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected.”


5) A party of the vanguard:  Contrary to the assertion of many critics, Lenin believed that though “the party as the vanguard of the working class must not be confused.…. with the entire class,” a “varied, rich, fruitful” interrelationship with the class as a whole must be facilitated by “full application of the democratic principle of the party organisation.” 


6) Struggles for reforms and democracy: Leninism also involves an approach of integrating reform struggles with revolutionary strategy and, combined with this, a remarkable understanding of the manner in which democratic struggles flow into a socialist revolution.


7) Worker-peasant alliance: Related to this revolutionary approach to strategy, especially in a predominantly peasant country like Russia, was Lenin’s insistence on the worker-peasant alliance. He wrote, amid the revolutionary upsurge of 1905, that “only the proletarians can be a consistent fighter for democracy. It can become a victorious fighter for democracy only if the peasant masses join the struggle.” 


8) United front tactic: As early as 1905, Lenin was an articulate par­tisan of what was later called the united front tactic with different labour, socialist and sometimes even liberal organisations, joining in specific efforts. He insisted on "the preservation of complete independence by each separate party on points of principle and orga­nisation" in the context of "a fighting unity of these parties" in favour of democratic demands as well as specific reforms, or even for overthrow of czarism.  


9) Comprehending imperialism and nationality: A central element in the Leninist perspective, as it crystallised amid the fires of the First World War, were the profound analyses of imperialism and nationalism. Lenin argued that capitalism transformed as it evolved into its modern imperial­ist phase. His discussion has a special resonance in our own age of "globalisation" and ethnic identity. Lenin perceived that the 20th century marked the turning point from the old capitalism to the new, from the domination of capital in general to the domination of finance capital.


10) Revolutionary internationalism: Lenin advanced a vibrant revo­lutionary internationalist approach that stressed the necessity of workers and oppressed peoples of all lands to make common cause. He noted that the conditions generated by the First World War had "brought the whole of humanity to an impasse, and faced it with the dilemma of either permitting the extermination of more mil­lions of lives and the complete extinction of European civilisation, or handing over power to the revolutionary proletariat and achiev­ing the socialist revolution in civilised countries." He further insisted on the need for a "union between revolutionary proletarians of the capitalist, advanced countries, and the revolutionary masses of colonial countries." 


These components were what led Rosa Luxemburg to hail the victory of socialism in Russia, despite some of her critical remarks. They indicate how the thought process of the architect of that world-shaking event worked and ultimately succeeded in effecting the first socialist revolution in world history.   




So far as Russia is concerned, the idea of a revolution was not new. With an industrial proletariat relatively small but highly concentrated in huge factories, with a mass of the poor discontented land-hungry peasants and with a tottering czarist administration, Russia was obviously a “weak link” in the chain of imperialism. 


An upheaval was, therefore, to be expected. Indeed some observers even forecast that Russia’s revolution might be ‘permanent’ and pass over from the bourgeois phase rapidly to a socialist stage. What no Marxist could even conceive at that time was that Russia would achieve the task of building socialism in isolation. The idea seemed particularly absurd in 1920 --- the world war and the three years of civil war had left Russia in wrecks, its industry ruined and its workers dispersed (some absorbed by the new administration, others gone back to the countryside), so that one critic was even tempted to describe the Bolsheviks as the “vanguard of a non-existent class.”


Rosa Luxemburg, however, more than anybody else, envisioned the revolution as a worldwide process covering a whole historical period, as a series of defeats leading to ultimate victory. This was all the more reason for Lenin and his comrades to stick to the principles of proletarian democracy, so as to prepare the ground for future victories --- both at home and abroad.


Despite Rosa Luxemburg’s suggestion that Bolsheviks were in a terrible battle and in the most awkward of circumstances, some criticised or condemned them that the principles of socialist democracy were not given proper weight during the advance of socialism. But let us hear Rosa, an ardent proponent of socialist democracy, “The Russian Revolution has but confirmed the heroic lessons of every great Revolution, the law of its being, that decrees: either the revolution must advance at a rapid, stormy and resolute tempo, break down all barriers with an iron hand and place it goals even further ahead, or it is quite soon thrown backward behind its feeble point of departure and suppressed by counter-revolution. To stand still on one spot, to be contented with the first goal it happens to reach, is never possible in revolution. And he who tries to apply the home-made wisdom derived from parliamentary battles between the frogs and mice to the field of revolutionary tactics, only shows thereby that the very psychology and laws of existence of revolution are alien to him and that all historical experience is to him a book sealed with seven seals” (The Russian Revolution).  


In her discussion on ‘Democracy and Dictatorship’ in the above-mentioned essay, she asserted, “But socialist democracy is not something which begins in the promised land after the foundation of socialist economy are created; it does not come as a sort of  Christmas present for the worthy people who in the interim have loyally supported a handful of socialist dictators. Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginning of the destruction of class rule and of the construction of socialism. It begins at the very moment of the seizure of power by the Socialist Party. It is the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat.”


Rosa’s following words are resounding: “Yes, dictatorship! But this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, in energetic resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished. But this dictatorship must be the work of the class – that is, it must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses, it must be under their direct influence, subjected to the control of  complete public activity; it must arise out of the growing political training of the mass of the people” (italics added).  


Lenin asserted that dictatorship of the proletariat means the rule of 90 per cent of the people in contrast to the bourgeois dictatorship which is the dictatorships of a tiny minority over the vast majority.




Stalin embarked on collectivisation drive in 1929. Stalin’s period, including the period of collectivisation and industrialisation, invited virulent condemnation from the entire bourgeois world except a handful of progressive-minded intellectuals. In case of India, the latter included notably Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru and Prafulla Sarkar, the founder editor of Bengali daily Ananda Bazar Patrika, all of whom wrote with tremendous admiration about the building of a new society in Soviet Union. Tagore made only one criticism in his Letters from Russia --- that the ‘mechanical’ or ‘dictatorial’ system of education in Russia might spell doom for the Soviet system. Otherwise, all over in his Letters from Russia, Tagore was full of admiration for Soviet Russia. Yet one must understand that the Soviet Union did not die due to its education system but for other reasons. Tagore, according to Professor Hiren Mukherjee, had much faith in the Soviet Union. When a seriously ailing Tagore heard from his private secretary, Amiya Chakraborty, the news of Nazi invasion in 1941, in deep agony he uttered the words: “No, no, Soviets cannot be defeated, I have seen them.” As the great intellectuals who visited the Soviet Union at that time, including Tagore, were no Marxists, the Marxist concept of proletarian dictatorship was not understandable to them.


Even a modern critic of Stalin, Daniel Singer, wrote “Here I realise I am also joining the current fashion of describing only the seamy side of Soviet development. No regime can survive for long, propped by the power of police. Russia under Stalin was not a just urban overcrowding, the cult of personality, and the gulag. It was also the extension of health services, mass education in a semi-literate country and the prospect of social advancement for the children of workers and peasants. This regime was producing the professional intellectuals. The Soviet Union at that time was also the enthusiasm of young Komsomols building dams on the Dneiper and steel mills in Magnitogorsk. It was the breakneck industrialisation that, within a dozen of years or so, built the factories that provided tanks and guns with which Red Army saved us from the Nazis and which paradoxically enabled Stalin, the inventor of ‘Socialism in one country,’ to extend this socialism up to the Elbe” (Whose Millennium?, emphasis added).


Not only from bourgeois press and intellectuals from other quarters also, much of condemnation has come of Stalin’s excesses and tyranny during the period of collectivisation, industrialisation and military preparedness. While some complaints of excesses may contain truth, these assertions were made in isolation, without any consideration of the existing conditions. The reality of virtual encirclement of Soviet Union by the imperialist forces from outside, pumping of colossal amounts of fund to organise internal dissidence and sabotage, the fact of which is now openly confessed by some topmost capitalists of the world, are all ignored.


Then there was the big danger confronting the Soviet Union --- the fascist threat from a rapidly growing Nazi Germany. Furthermore, from the very onset of socialist rule in Soviet Union, the seeds of revisionism and capitulation to capitalism, obviously, exerted their threatening influence as the capitalist world was constantly tempting, materially as well as ideologically, a section of the leadership and others, who were deprived of their vested interests, to turn the tide of socialism in Soviet Union.


During the thirties, while Stalin was at the head of the party and state, these trends were quite evident. In these circumstances, the excesses that were committed during Stalin’s rule cannot be attributed to Stalin alone; in the main, the adverse circumstances were mostly responsible for this undesirable situation. 


Moreover, in his writings during collectivisation, Stalin himself repeatedly warned and criticised the party leaders and cadre against any excesses being committed in rural areas. His article “Dizzy with Success” is an exemplary warning in this regard.


Here we quote a strong critic of Stalin, Stephen Graham, “Checking German espionage was a legitimate activity of the Soviet secret service and constituted a real problem. Adolf Hitler looked upon himself as a man called by Providence to destroy Marxism. His fulminations against the Russian revolution did not frighten Stalin. He considered that Hitler was shouting merely to give himself courage.” Moreover, Trotsky’s conspiracy to topple or even murder Stalin was also a real threat. The mysterious assassination of Kirov, a young leader, in the early 1930s created a worrisome sensation in Russia. In Stephen Graham’s words, “Actually Trotsky did have his agents in Russia. There were men working secretly for him, mostly obscure Jews who kept him informed of the developments in domestic politics. The ‘old man’ never lost hope that Stalin would be killed or would die in the course of nature and that the Communist Party would recall him from exile…..” These words give a glimpse of the dreadful and suspicious atmosphere prevailing in the USSR particularly in the period of the purge of 1936. Meanwhile, Stalin-Bukharin debate on


Soviet economic policy and Bukharin’s criticism of Stalin’s policy further worsened the situation.


Sensing the ensuing danger, Maxim Gorky tried to persuade Stalin to be more humane to everyone. But, Stephen Graham writes, “He (Stalin) held to the belief that a man who had once proved to be an enemy would remain an enemy to the end…..” All these circumstances need be taken into consideration before passing any judgement on Stalin’s excesses.


As for the outcry that Bolsheviks were committing distortions in Russia, Rosa Luxemburg said, “Let the German government socialists cry that the role of the Bolsheviks in Russia is a distorted expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat. If it was or is such, that is only because it is a product of the behaviour of the German proletariat, in itself is a distorted expression of the socialist class struggle.


“For a model and faultless proletarian revolution in an isolated island, exhausted by world war, strangled by imperialism, betrayed by the international proletariat, would be a miracle” (The Russian Revolution).


Luxemburg’s observation, which she made while Lenin was leading the Soviet state, is equally applicable to Stalin’s time when the situation was more horrible.




Twenty years have elapsed since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. August 19 and 20 were the two days that were widely observed in the erstwhile Soviet Union, with thousands and thousands taking to the streets of Moscow and other cities, pledging for rebirth of the former Soviet Union. This is an inspiring aspect for the communist movement all over the world.


We conclude this analysis by quoting Rosa Luxemburg again. In The Russian Revolution, she wrote:  


“What is in order is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, the kernel from the accidental excrescences in the policies of the Bolsheviks. In the present period, when we face decisive final struggles in all the world, the most important problem of socialism was and is the burning question of our time. It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act; the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: "I have dared!"


“This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realisation of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labour in the entire world. In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to Bolshevism."  




Now we see that the grave crisis of world capitalism, beginning in September 2008, has entered (in the words of the IMF) a “dangerous phase” in 2011 and waves of mass anti-capitalist struggles all over provide a favourable ground for revolutionary upheavals in the world.


Moreover, the slogans of this upsurge, like Occupy Wall Street or Down with Capitalism, are reverberating not only in Europe and US, but fast spreading to Asian countries including Japan. It is a new situation and if it is properly handled and guided by the communists and revolutionary trade unions, one cannot rule out the possibility that international capitalism may get undermined under the impact of this unforeseen upsurge, providing enough scope to the revolutionary forces to advance. Revolutionary forces need, therefore, come forward to lead this mass anti-capitalist wave with their agenda of socialism.