13 June, 2024


Russian Revolution: Centenary & Its Lessons (1917-2017)

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

If any youngster, student, journalist, social activist or even a teacher wants to learn the history of the Russian revolution, there are so much of material in books, journal articles, newspapers, and websites. It is possible that unlike those Soviet days, the young nowadays hardly read them because there is a strong impression that socialism is dead or largely dead with the collapse of the Soviet Union. No one can blame them because even the ‘old left’ these days go after many other pursuits. What they forget is the existence and progress of China as a socialist country.

Two Anniversaries

This year 2017 is the 100th anniversary of the two Russian revolutions, popularly known as the February revolution and the October revolution, the latter actually occurring in November. Russia those days was a backward country even in its calendar by one month, therefore when it occurred in November, they were still in October! Thus, a socialist revolution occurred in a backward country, despite Karl Marx’s initial prediction (that it would take place in an advanced capitalist country) and that was a main reason for so many challenges, contradictions, setbacks or even distortions after the revolution.    

Compared to the 50th anniversary of the Russian revolution celebrated in 1967, the attention to the centenary this time is even less than half; the celebrations and writings being scarce. Those days in 1960s, there were so much of easy to read literature available at the People’s Publishing House bookshops or produced by the Left parties in Sinhala, Tamil and English. Those are hardly available today. The literature that I have mentioned at the beginning have to be accessed in university or public libraries or through Internet.

Two Types of Ideals

It is not the strikes, street fighting, barricades and the armed confrontations that we need to celebrate, but the ideals of the two revolutions. The conflicts were the outcomes of the polarized nature of the society. 

First, there were ideals of democracy that came to the forefront in the February revolution that included parliamentary democracy, universal franchise, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, rule of law, equality before the law, equality to the nationalities, and the aspirations for a new constitution. These are primarily liberal democratic ideals world over even today. In Russia, these were long standing demands going back to the late 19th century because of the autocratic or rather the dictatorial nature of the Romanov rule. Tsar Nicolas II was a hated figure in the country. As Russia was a war weary country by this time, peace was another major democratic demand. In all these respects, the February revolution was a reincarnation of the French revolution of 1789. 

Women played a major role in the Revolution

Second, there were ideals for a socialist society. These ideals though came from Marxism and other types of socialist philosophies, they very closely matched with the aspirations and demands of the poor peasants, extremely exploited workers in the cities, and the various nationalities who took a prominent role in the October revolution. In this sense, the October revolution was a resurrection of the Paris Commune of 1871. Land to the tiller and factories to the workers to end exploitation and ensure decent living were the main demands. End of serfdom, equality of the land use, reasonable prices for basic essentials like bread (price control in our words), increase of production and development of productive forces under new arrangements were some of the other socialist ideals. Although equal status to nationalities was a democratic demand, the major exponents of that aspiration in Russia were the socialists. 

Practical Application

When we look at the practical application or implementation of these ideals, they were not easy to achieve particularly given the underdeveloped nature of the economy and the polarized character of the society. Added to that were the war and the international circumstances. If the February revolution was a success, perhaps the October revolution would not have taken place. One the other hand, if not for the determination, organizational strength and the leadership of the Bolshevik party, even the October revolution could have been a failure.

In Marxist parlance, the failure of the February revolution, historically a bourgeois revolution, is explained referring to the weak or the foreign character of the bourgeoise. As Leon Trotsky said,

“…the proprietors of the principal industrial, banking, and transport enterprises were foreigners, who realized on their investments not only the profits drawn from Russia, but also a political influence in foreign parliaments…” (History of the Russian Revolution).

The above experience also has a lesson for a country like Sri Lanka, especially after the democratic political change in 2015. If the country’s main assets, enterprises and industries are callously given to the foreign companies, in the name of investment requirements (FDI), they and their local partners may not take much interest in expanding democracy in our country. Also those who sell the country’s assets to the foreigners, also might lose interest in expanding democracy to safeguard the foreign interests, whatever they must have said at elections.

The fall of the February revolution or the Kerensky government was a smooth process given the above weak and vacillating nature of the bourgeoisie. Therefore, there was no much violence or street fights in October. All hell broke loose much later when the feudal forces and the ousted bourgeoisie with foreign backing started the civil war. Therefore, the defence of the socialist revolution, let alone building socialism, was a difficult task in the ensuing period.

Major Gains

The Russian revolution had gone through major upheavals particularly in the 1930s. Even before, the civil-war period was difficult (1918-1922). It was like running a war economy, not socialism. Given the extremely underdeveloped nature of the productive forces, it was necessary to allow the ‘free market’ forces, without blatantly infringing the rights of the people, but it was difficult to implement such before 1922. The unfortunate political events in the 1930s, on the other hand, were largely due to certain extremist deviations, typical of certain Marxist movements leading even to civil unrest. If not for these events, the Soviet Union could have emerged as a major economy well before 1950s.

Whatever those weaknesses, the overall contribution that the Russian revolution made to the world and humanity was enormous. (1) It broke the capitalist world chain in its weakest link. (2) The Russian revolution inspired many other socialist revolutions and freedom struggles in China, Vietnam and Cuba, to mention the main. (3) It was a strength to many social democratic and worker’s parties to pursue socialist or welfare policies in many advanced capitalist countries. (4) It was an inspiration to the Third World countries and anti-colonial struggles. (5) It was the Soviet Union and its soldiers that could curtail the spread of fascism in Europe, apart from the contributions made by the allied nations. (6) In the process, the Soviet soldiers inspired and assisted the socialist forces in the Eastern Europe and as a result, almost a half of the continent became socialist or progressive.

When the Russian revolution took place, the per capita income of Russia was ten times lower than the United States. But after 50 years, the difference was only one to two. The major difference of the two systems was not the overall per capita, but its actual distribution. That is how one could talk about a difference between ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism.’ Although there was a privileged political class (the bureaucracy) in the Soviet Union, the gaps in income redistribution was quite narrow. In America, this was not and is not the case. In addition, there were constitutional guarantees such as the following in Article 19 in the Soviet constitution. 

“The state helps enhance the social homogeneity of society, namely the elimination of class differences and of the essential distinctions between town and country and between mental and physical labour, and the all-round development and drawing together of all the nations and nationalities of the USSR.”

There were obvious gaps between the theory and practice, and that is one reason why the Soviet Union collapsed in early 1990s. The primary reason for the collapse was the lack of democracy and people’s inability to correct the leaders given the bureaucratic political system. Another reason was the exorbitant unnecessary military expenditure, beyond the country’s means, to be a ‘super power.’   

Issues of Democracy

The issues of democracy in the Soviet Union, and socialism in general, date back to the dynamics of the two Russian revolutions. One of the objectives of the February revolution was to form a Constituent Assembly and draft a New Constitution. The task was to reform the Duma (the Russian Parliament) on the basis of the universal franchise and people’s sovereignty. However, Kerensky and other liberals were vacillating. There were parallel worker’s councils or the soviets, but those were spontaneous and ad hoc organizations.

Therefore, it was a mistake, in my opinion, for the Bolsheviks to by pass the constitutional and democratic process in the October revolution and place powers solely in the worker’s councils or the soviets. The background to this mistake was the mistaken theory of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ A dictatorship of capitalists or workers is a wrong concept. Socialism should belong to all classes and all sections of the society obviously except to the exploitative capitalist classes. 

Lenin and other leaders tried their best to be truthful, committed and accountable to the socialist cause and the people, but that cannot be said about all or all layers of the leadership or the party. The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ ended up as a ‘dictatorship of the party.’ The party was important in producing leaders, formulating policies, educating and inspiring the people, undertaking difficult tasks and monitoring the implementation of socialist policies. Instead, however, it became a bureaucracy.

The concept of the ‘citizen in a socialist society’ did not develop with freedoms and liberties, of course with responsibilities and duties. It may be possible that those could not evolve instantly given the chaotic conditions and different political and social forces in Russia at that time. However, if the Duma was reformed, elections were held and a new democratic constitution was drafted, those principles and institutions could have evolved gradually. The freedom of expression, the media, the freedom of movement, rule of law and independence of the judiciary etc. were important for the socialist progress but that did not happen in that way.

In other words, human rights are important not only for capitalism, but more so for socialism. Rights are part and parcel of social or socialist responsibilities and vice versa. It is true that human rights in capitalist societies are confined largely to civil and political rights. It is up to the socialists to  change it.   

Future Hopes

Although the Soviet Union has disintegrated, and Russia has turned back to capitalism, it is possible that socialism might re-emerge again within a more democratic and an advanced form. The road to socialism might take different forms and different paths in historically complex and socially diverse world, while co-existing with capitalism at present. Capitalism undoubtedly is still a strong force, utilizing not only people’s ‘greed,’ but also people’s will to progress and succeed. The latter aspirations are valid and beneficial for overall social progress. Socialism, therefore, should not undermine those aspirations of the people, including the entrepreneurship for reasonable enterprises.

Socialism in China is holding strongly with ‘Chinese characteristics,’ as they say. Cuba and Vietnam are also the same in different forms. Those are encouragements for socialists, although many have got discouraged after the fall of the Soviet Union, and deviated to many other pursuits. It is unfortunate that the socialists in Sri Lanka largely belonged to the ‘deviated category,’ so much so, they are even shy in calling themselves socialists, mostly hiding behind the ‘left’ banners, apart from their sectarian and mostly personal infights.

But Sri Lanka is a ‘Democratic Socialist Republic! Apart from uniting, discussing viable future strategies, and launching easy to read popular socialist literature for the education of the young generations, what the socialists in Sri Lanka could do is to defend Sri Lanka as a ‘democratic socialist republic’ in the constitution, and gradually develop policies in order to put them into actual practice. In this age of communication revolution, it is possible to achieve socialism through the ballot box, peacefully, without resorting to or encouraging violent upheavals.                 


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Latest comments

  • 1

    The 1917 February Revolution led by Provincial Govt. Cadet Party closed tied up with big landowners.
    It was clear that Russian bourgeoisie have become closed alliance of Landlords.
    But writer has misconception and created of 1917 October revolution led by Bolsheviks were not a fully Marxist Political Party led by Lenin and Stalin since very beginning.
    It at that time Russian society which social roots has goes of genuine resrestsntives of Soviets of Works and Peasants classes. Bolsheviks party has come conclusion by very inception since 1895, that their struggle against capitalism came to identify that even by an ideologically and after long experiences of 1905 Revolution and 1917 February Revolution the “victory” of their revolution is not going completed by their own historical task of bourgeoisie revolution under taken by Big-bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie by themselves.

    Not only that even Socialist -Revolutionaries and Mensheviks after February Revolution 1917 the a fact has been proven and reveals that the Constitutional Assembly was an Illusion. The facts of history of Bolsheviks Party documents has revealed —-A Constitutional Assembly was at that time of convene has postponement until 1917 November 20!

    In this situation Lenin has explain as follows ; ” Unless a New Revolution takes place in Russia ,unless the power of the counter-revolutionary Bourgeoisie (primarily the Cadets) is overthrown, and unless the People withdraw their trust from Socialists -Revolutionary and Menshevik parties compromising with bourgeoisies ,the Constitutional Assembly will either never meet, or else will be just a ‘Frankfurt talking shop’ “.

    The Soviet Revolution in 1917 October that political power in the State is in hand of a Working class ,whose interest coincide with majority Peoples interest . Which state can be governances by really line with majority Will of the People by Bolsheviks Party of Russian which that October Socialist Revolution in 1917 led by Lenin and Stalin.

    • 1

      Dr. Laksiri,
      I think that “the existence and progress of China as a Socialist country” is something of a misconception. China only progressed when it abandoned socialism wholesale. China may be ruled by the Communist Party, but it is no more socialist than, say, Sweden. Sweden in fact may be more socialist in a real sense than China!
      Even Vietnam has abandoned most socialist principles. The only country sticking to the rules of socialism/communism is North Korea, and they are not getting very far, perhaps due to US roadblocks.
      I wonder whether in an ideal world, states like N. Korea and Cuba would survive and prosper, but then the world is far from ideal.

      • 0

        I agree that China is no more a socialist society.
        But the fact that the ruling elite are unable do away with some features of socialist rule from 1949 to 1976 (and a few years after) says something.
        In an ideal world there is no need for North Korea or Cuba to deal with a bully like US imperialism

      • 1

        old codger

        Is it your intention to offend all Chinese Communists of Sri Lankan origin? All those claimed to have been communists countries were in fact Totalitarian states with state owned capitalism. People were never been part of the decision making process.

        Further, Stalin decided when people should go to toilet, how many times couples could have planned sex in a year and what sexual position (as per Polit-Bureau) was good for the people, party, state and its leader.

        Isn’t it what the weeping widow wanted and the Sinhala/Buddhist fascists insist upon?

  • 1

    Dr Laksiri Fernando,

    I beg to differ!

    The Bolshevicks had slogans such as peace, bread and land and All powers to the Soviets!.

    Democracy was not in the agenda.!

    The war weary Russia was begging for peace at the end of the first World War!
    The second world war also was tragic to the people all over the world including Soviet Union.!

    However it resulted in socialism in Eastern Europe,but not through a revolution.

    War wearines was a factor! .

    Peace was a recurrent theme in the Russian literature since the end of the war.

    Democracy was not an issue, capitalist democracy was a farce.

    Lenin used to narrate a story to redicule capitalism..

    “in the ocean the big fishes were swallowing the small fishes to the annoyance of the small fishes and the small fishes complained that it was not fair. The big fishes agreed and offered to be swallowed by the small fishes. The small fishes tried and tried but ultimately failed. and accepted their fate.

    The moral of the story is self evident.

    The proletariat dictatorship is the inevitable outcome of the workers revolution, but of course internal democracy would have been the desired outcome.But unfortunately it was not to be!
    Instead all socialist states went for state capitalism and finally to the dictatorship of the Party..

    The Chinese were not an exception,The Chinese now talks about Socialist Market Economy. It is a smokescreen to hide their betrayal.

    It is immaterial whether the leader was Lenin , Trotsky, Stalin or Mao,the result would have been the same.
    The personalities does not count

    .It is historical materialism, not dialectic materialism!.

    I am sorry to be pessimistic., It pains me to write against my childhood dreams, but is there a way out?

  • 1

    Dr. Laksiri Fernando,

    The monarchy of the Tsar, the Landowners and the control of the means of capital, and the very unequal distribution of living standards and wealth, along with the WW1, was the catalyst for the Russian Revolution.

    What was the core-problem of communism and socialism? It was low overall productivity due to low incentives.

    Since almost everybody was paid about the same, there was no incentive for the most efficient productive people to produce and innovate.The net effect was that the society as a whole produced less than a capitalist economy.

    Sweden, Norway etc. even though socialist, they are still capitalist and the most productive and innovative workers and companies can earn more.

  • 1

    Dr Fernando,

    The October revolution hit the buffers about the late eighties. Still, It is a tad too early to ‘look at lessons learnt’ from it all.

    After all, we have just about digested the ‘lessons learnt’ from the French Revolution.

  • 1

    By comment of Sri-Krishn…
    Once during height of Chinese Revolution Mao said Revolution is not a Tea party.
    In, its essence of nature and terms of State what that Lenin wrote in State and Revolution 1917 August -September “According to Marx, the state is an Organ of Class RULE ,an organ for OPPERESSION of one class by another; it is the creation of ‘order’, which legalizes and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between the class.”
    Lenin further states that.”……It is obvious that the liberation of the oppressed class is impossible not only without a violent revolution ,but also without the destruction of the apparatus of State power which was created by ruling class and which is the embodiment of this ‘alienation’….”

    By Lenin said that of few months before 1917 July 13 October Revolution”…Just think what a madhouse this is; the country is on the rocks, the people are on the verge of FAMINE and DISASTER, there is a shortage of coal and iron although they can be mined……” He told to “……Is not it high time you gentlemen realized that the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks as parties will have to answer to THE PEOPLE FOR THE CATASROPE ?…….”

    The FAILURE OF that 1917 FEBUARTY REVOLUTION led by Big bourgeoisie and petty bourgeois after ousted Tsarist of Monarchy regime that short period of at time Russian state shifted to Counter Revolutionary State.
    By explaining that he said “It was that the Russian’s specific features is what owing to the revolutionary situation in the country the country the failure of Socialist -Revolutionary and Menshevik parties will be worse and will come sooner than usual….” .. By reveled the facts Lenin ” the policy of these parties is essentially one of compromise with counter-revolutionary.. want to share power with big bourgeois ,but not OVERTHROW them….” and not lost their power of State?

  • 0

    Historical experience of Paris Commune in 70 days has been summed up by Marx. This lessons has been learn by Bolshevizes Party has extensive which studies of volumes by writing of Lenin.
    In fact by and large that the majority in the STATE to really decided ,definite and conditions are required ;
    One which is the FIRM establishment of a Political System, a form of State Power ,making the translation of this possibility into reality.
    Two that the class composition of this majority and the interrelation of classes inside(and outside) it should ENABLE it to draw the chariot of State concertedly and effectively .

    Every Marxist knows that these TWO concrete conditions play a decisive of state affairs in line with the WILL OF THE MAJORITY. For this purpose power must be in the HAND OF THE MOST ADVANCED,MOST DETERMINED AND MOST REVOLUTIONAY CLASS TODAY…….FOR THIS PUROPOSE THAT CLASS MUST BE SUPPORT BY THE WHOLE MASS OF THE URBAN AND RURAL POOR(A THE SEMI-PROLETARIANS). Constitutional Illusion page 198/9 Volume 25 of Lenin collected works.
    The petty bourgeois myth of break imperialist and gain peace is quite impossible The that Dictatorship of the Proletariat and triumph of Socialism and that is possible to secure the transfer of Land to the People without compensation and establishment control over the production in the people ‘s interest without the any conditions….
    The October Socialist Revolution in 1917 comes to edge of Revolution Lenin said” power to the Soviets means the complete transfer of country ‘s administration and economic control into the hands of the workers and peasants to whom NOBODY would dare offer resistance and who through practice , through their own experiences ,would soon learn how to distribute the land ,products and grain properly..”
    That was hundred years before how Russia has shifted to USSR by CPSU led by Lenin and Stalin.

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