People's Democracy

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


No. 44

November 04, 2012


Teachings of November Revolution


Sukomal Sen


 There are two 'ten days that shook the world' in the history of the revolutionary movement of the last century: the days of the October Revolution, described in John Reed's book of that title, and the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (14-25 February 1956). Both divide it suddenly and irrevocably into a 'before' and 'after'. I cannot think of any comparable event in the history of any major ideological or political movement. To put it in the simplest terms, the October Revolution created a world commu­nist movement, the Twentieth Congress destroyed it”.


This was said by world famous Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who just breathed his last after leaving volumes of historical analyses on the course of world communist movement and working people’s struggles including that of recent times.


In fact the Ten Days That Shook the World was an eyewitness account by American Journalist John Reed about how the world was being shaken and fundamentally changed during the ten days of heroic upheaval of the Russian working class in November 1917.


Storming of heavens’ is how Karl Marx acclaimed the Paris Commune while analysing the Revolution of 1881 performed by the armed French working class, that unfortunately could not last for more than two months. Marx explained the reasons of the defeat, but asked the world to see what is meant by proletarian dictatorship in practice, ie, the replacement of the class rule of the bourgeoisie by the class rule of the proletariat. But Russian revolution was of a different type – as Russian working class organised armed revolution led by the Communist Party with Lenin at the head of it.


The world communist movement had been constructed, on Leninist lines, as a single disciplined army dedicated to the transfor­mation of the world under a centralised and quasi-military command situated in the only state in which the proletariat led the Communist Party had taken power. It became a movement of global significance because it was linked to the USSR, which in turn became the country that tore the guts out of Nazi Germany and emerged from the war as a superpower. Bolshevism had transformed a weak regime in a vast but backward country into a superpower. The advance of the cause of socialism in other countries, the liberation of the colonial and semi-colonial world depended on its support and on its sometimes reluctant but real protection. Whatever its weaknesses, its very existence proved that socialism was more than a dream. That was the biggest challenge of the communist movement to break the chains of bourgeois class rule in one country – Russia.  And the intense anti-communism of the Cold War crusaders, which branded communists worldwide exclusively as agents of Moscow, welded them more firmly to the USSR, to its socialist ideals.


Since 1917 to 1990, which means after 73 years of socialist rule, the USSR broke down in 1991. Bewildered and dazed, communist parties world over started analysing the reasons for the downfall of socialism in erstwhile USSR, but in between, some communist parties in a few countries disintegrated or semi-disintegrated and a few kept its structure in tact and started their reorganising activities minus the beacon of Red Star of USSR.


Those were very hard days for the world communist movement, but in the present world scenario, all communists and sympathisers of the communist movement are re-launching their attack on the rule of capital and its latest version – neo-liberal globalisation, which is so far the fiercest form of attack of world capitalism on the working class and the poor of the world.      


But why did it fail, or rather break down? It is the paradox of the USSR that, in its death, it provided one of the strongest arguments for the analysis of Karl Marx, which it had claimed to exemplify. Marx wrote in 1859:


‘In the social production of their means of existence human beings enter into definite, necessary relations independent of their will, productive relationships which correspond to a definite stage in the development of their material productive forces. At a certain stage of their development the material productive forces of society come into contradiction with the existing productive relationships, or, what is but a legal expression for these, with the property relationships within which they had moved before. From forms of development of the productive forces these relationships are trans­formed into their fetters. We then enter an era of social revolution’.


Nobody can deny Marx’s theoretical position which creates a situation for social revolution. A few may argue whether the above analysis of Marx suited well for the Russian revolution. But that apart, the dilution of the Marxian revolutionary ideology and the events that followed the 20th CPSU Congress – the first Congress after departure of Stalin from the scene, in practice prepared the ground for the collapse of socialism in USSR with the consequent ideological cataclysm faced by the communist movement in the entire world which persists till today – cannot be denied. In this respect, the above quotation of Eric Hobsbawm underlining the historical truth has to be noted.


Yet some may even argue that rarely has there been a clearer example of Marx' forces of production coming into conflict with the social, institutional and ideological super­structure which had transformed backward agrarian economies into advanced industrial ones – up to the point where they turn from forces into fetters of production. In case of Russian revolution, this is yet a debatable point. But the disintegration of Soviet Union is real. Hobsbawm explained the role of the 20th Congress of CPSU for this ultimate disintegration. 


But what would replace it? Here we can no longer follow the nineteenth-century optimism of Marx, who argued that the overthrow of the old system must lead to a better one, because 'mankind always sets itself only such problems as it can solve'. The problems which 'mankind', or rather the Bolsheviks, set themselves in 1917 were not soluble in the circumstances of their time and place, or only very incompletely soluble, but history cannot ignore the intensification of the cold war which wielded tremendous strain on the Bolsheviks to compete with the US and other West European economies and their standard of life. But at the same time it is a sin to overlook the Soviet achievements in the field of culture, arts and science and social egalitarianism.


To day it would take a high degree of confidence to argue that in the foreseeable future a solution is visible for the problems arising out of the collapse of Soviet communism, or that any solution that may arise within the next generation will strike the inhabitants of the former USSR and the communist Balkans as an obvious improvement.


With the collapse of the USSR the experiment of 'really existing socialism' as it is said by some, came to an end. For, even where communist regimes survived and succeeded, as in China, they abandoned the original ideal of a single, centrally controlled and State-planned economy based on a completely collectivised State - or cooperatively owned economy virtually without a market.


The Soviet experiment was designed not as a global alternative to capitalism, but as a specific set of responses to the particular situation of a vast and spectacularly backward country at a particular and unrepeatable historical conjuncture. The failure of revolution elsewhere left the USSR committed to build socialism alone, in a country which at last succeeded in 1917.


How far the failure of the Soviet experiment throws doubt on the entire project of traditional socialism, an economy essentially based on the social ownership and planned management of the means of produc­tion, distribution and exchange, is another question. That such a project is economically rational in theory has been accepted by economists since before the First World War, though, curiously enough, the theory was worked out not by socialists but by non-socialist pure economists. That it would have practical drawbacks, if only through bureaucratisation, was obvious. That it had to work, at least partly, through prices, both market pricing and realistic 'accounting prices', was also clear if socialism was to take account of the wishes of consumers rather than telling them what was good for them. In fact, socialist economists in the West who thought about these matters in the 1930s, when the subject was naturally much debated, assumed a combination of planning, preferably decentralised, with prices. To demonstrate the feasibility of such a socialist economy is not, of course, to demonstrate its necessary superiority to, say, some socially jester version of the Golden Age mixed economy, still less, that people would prefer it. It is merely to separate the question of socialism in general from that of the specific experience of the existing socialism that existed in Soviet Union but later perished by the events after 20th Congress.


Eric Hobsbawm gives us an interesting story of his own experience like this, ‘one of the most sophisticated socialist economists of the 1930s, Oskar Lange, returned from the USA to his native Poland to build socialism, until he came to a London hospital to die. On his death-bed he talked to the friends and admirers who came to visit him, including myself. This, as I recall, is what he said:


If I had been in Russia in the 1920s, I would have been a Bukharinite gradualist. If I had advised on Soviet industrialization, I would have recommended a more flexible and limited set of targets, as indeed the able Russian planners did. And yet, as I think back, I ask myself, again and again: was there an alternative to the indiscriminate, brutal, basically unplanned rush forward of the first Five- Year Plan? I wish I could say there was, but I cannot. I cannot find an answer’. It is really a significant point that Oskar Lange made while in his death bed. Who can answer this? The critics of Soviet type of socialism, can they reply?


The flame of November 1917 is inextinguishable and it is ever  burning – if the objective situations are properly handled and used, there is no cause to despair even in the situation of collapse of socialism in former USSR and the fierce economic and military onslaught of imperialism and its agencies. The most important condition for this advance of communist movement,  besides what have been discussed above, is ideological honesty and firmness of the communist party and its leaders and members.