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


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.

by Laksiri Fernando

( November 12, 2017, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) 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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