By Kumar David –
Today 100 years ago, 26 February by the old Julian calendar, Petrograd rose up and within a week forced the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. In the modern Gregorian calendar 26 Feb is 7 March. Throughout this piece I use ingrained old style dates, otherwise the February Revolution was in March, the October Revolution in November and the counterrevolution, the “Kornoliv Affair”, in September. But history has marked these cataclysmic events in indelible ink using other names that it is not in my power to change. It started on International Women’s Day, 23 February, when thousands of women marched from factory to factory in support of the strike at the Putilov Factory which had commenced the previous day. The action grew to quarter of a million and slogans matured from protests at food rationing to “Overthrow of the Autocracy”.
The army in Petrograd mutinied starting with the Pavlovsy Regiment and finally the Volynsky Regiment, thus forcing the Tsar to abdicate on 2 March. A Provincial Government of grandees and liberals was formed with Prince Gregory Lvov as prime minister. Far more important for posterity was that on the 27-th of February the popular councils of the city united to form the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers deputies. A state of Dual Power (two parallel state powers in one country) came into being. Lenin in exile and the Bolsheviks in Russia were blindsided; the spontaneous seizure of power by the people astonished them. To be fair, Lenin had been preparing for decades, but this spontaneous capture of power by the people caught them all flat-footed.
I am going to let you into a secret if you promise not to stop reading after I reveal the plot. What motivates this piece is not what happened in Russia a century ago but our predicament in Lanka today. If you scale down from the world-historical to the national, then January 8 is our February. Two things are common; a despised autocracy was dismantled and secondly huge aspirations for a better future were unfurled. They reached their October; but we are still stuck in the mud sans a bourgeois democratic yahapalanaya. Therefore the pivot of this essay is not February or October, but August.
Post-February it was confusion and misgovernment, things were sliding. Counterrevolution was personified in General Kornilov who in August moved troops from the war-front to crush revolutionary Petrograd. Lanka now is in the throes of a reactionary backswing; our Kornilov is none other than the Joint Opposition (JO). I am running ahead, I need return and pick up the thread from Russia.
Lenin returned to Petrograd from exile on 3 April and threw a spanner in the works for the Bolsheviks – the April Thesis. The Gospel according to European Revolutionaries of which Lenin was a high priest, up to that time said ‘two-stage revolution’. Pre-capitalist societies would first establish bourgeois democracy and capitalist consolidation before the tasks of socialism could be posed. Lenin stunned all of Bolshevism by dumping this in the dustbin and calling for “All Power to the Soviets”, which amounted to overthrowing the Provisional Government and going forward to a workers regime. He was edging close to Trotsky’s thesis of uninterrupted or permanent revolution. In this they were both right but only about Russia. In one hundred years only in Russia (arguably maybe Cuba and Vietnam too) but nowhere else in the world has such a thing happened! Theories grow grey my friend, but the tree of life is ever green, said Germany’s greatest poet and intellect, Johann Wolfgang Goethe.
Throughout April, May and June political chaos (a tussle for power between the Provincial Government and the Petrograd Soviet) dragged on. In June Lvov resigned making way for Kerensky (a Social Revolutionary) as prime minister – the regime was pushed noticeably left. In July proletarian hotheads took to the streets in hundreds of thousands intending to overthrow the government. Utterly premature! The countryside and the army were not ready; the uprising would have been crushed. Then we see the genius of Lenin; unable to tame this ultra-left 1971-JVP like eruption, he threw the Party into the leadership of the movement so as to limit damage and execute an orderly withdrawal.
The backlash continued through late July and August. Kornilov was their version of a Felix Dias or a Gotabaya. (The fatal mistake of the LTTE was prioritising the military over the political and turning itself into an army whose obliteration was foredoomed). Today in Lanka the Joint Opposition obstructs economic progress, inflames conflict about the constitution and instigates strikes. In an open letter to JO MP’s dated 28.12.16, Vasudeva, inter alia writes: “Our task is to give RW and his gang no peace, no rest, inside parliament and in the field of elections. We need to cultivate MPs of the government and act on the natural divisions in their alliance. . . People (do not) know the monstrosity of this government including the violence inflicted on our sovereignty and treacherous sell-out of our resources”. Vasu blurts out in the open what others in the JO do on the sly. Such provocation lays the ground for Kornilov-type treachery. A Kornilov victory in Russia would have been a forerunner of the Pinochet coup in Chile in 1973. A JO triumph will likewise be a counterrevolutionary victory in Lanka.
Defeating the counterrevolution
How did the Russian revolutionaries defeat the coup and why is it that the Sirisena-Ranil combo is unable to deal with a threat to its own survival? The difference is two-fold; mobilisation and leadership. Thousands occupied railway lines and roads, railway workers stopped troop rains, revolutionary soldiers climbed aboard and fraternised with Kornilov’s battalions, women clambered up everywhere, pressed in among the soldiers and demanded to know “Are you going to shoot your mothers and sisters?” There is a marvellous chapter about the ‘routing’ of Kornilov’s army by people-power in Trotsky’s ‘History of the Russian Revolution’. In modern times we have seen people-power defeat dictators and armies in the Philippines, Easter Europe and briefly in the Arab Spring.
But mobilisation cannot happen, or will be thrown back after initial success, unless there is leadership. This is where Lenin and the network the Bolsheviks had built were decisive. Lenin who went to hiding in Finland at the start of the coup came back to Petrograd in September and took control of party and events. (He was no petty bourgeois romantic who bared his chest and declared “Shoot to see”. He was a revolutionary realist). He held the Party back and refused to sanction a power grab till the Petrograd Soviet whose chairman was Trotsky – also head of its Military Revolutionary Committee – was ready to take power in the name of the Soviets, not in the name of the Party. “Peace, Land and Bread” had to seep deep in everywhere. Peace for a nation exhausted from war and desperate for a settlement; land for a peasantry hungry for the great estates of the grandees and bread for starving Russia. But above all else remember this; there would have been no October if the backlash of August had not been defeated.
Thus I come to the moral of my story. There will no new constitution, no useful amendments, no economic programme, “no peace, no rest” until the counterrevolution in full swing under the leadership of the Joint Opposition is confronted and crushed. This political challenge has to be met first, otherwise nothing will happen; the government will whimper and die. To address that task the people have to be mobilised, for which in turn we need leadership. Will Sirisena tuck up his cloth and storm out declaiming “Gahawvoth Gahanawa”? Will Ranil strip off his suit, don a pair of shorts and accept the challenge instead of indulging in chamber room squabbles and daydreaming of life after Sirisena? Mobilisation has its own internal momentum and will move beyond limits and restraints imposed by conservative leaders. Maybe Ranil sees this and fights shy. Maybe Sirisena demurs for the same reason. The S&R duumvirate is ducking. Realising this citizen’s movements, smaller parties, associations of artists, journalists and trade unions are taking up the challenge. As this mobilisation builds it will confront the JO; then S&R will no longer be able to hide under their beds; they will be dragged out, kicking and screaming and made to stand in front.
The real issue right now is not the words in the Draft Constitution, or economic ideology, or the national question. No the stuff of the day is the political battle – Kornoliov or Lenin, Joint Opposition or January 8 Movement. He who wins this battle on the streets and in the eyes of the people will carry all before him. After that, victory at a referendum will be plain sailing.