Celebrating Red October

The Russian Revolution in Historical Perspective

On 25 October 1917, according to the Julian calendar then in use, the working class of Russia seized state power with the support of broad layers of the poor peasantry. The first successful socialist revolution in history “shook the world” as the newly born Soviet workers’ state immediately became a beacon of hope for oppressed people around the planet. Despite its subsequent bureaucratic degeneration, the Soviet Union would go on to play a decisive role in shaping global politics until its demise in 1991. The demonstrated success of Leninism – the revolutionary socialist program and organizational model named after the principal leader of the Bolsheviks, V.I. Lenin – marginalized competing socialist currents claiming to offer strategies for overturning capitalism.

Although the majority of the organizations that have claimed the banner of Leninism over the course of the 20th century had little in common with authentic Bolshevism, the “specter of communism” did indeed haunt the ruling classes of the world for generations, particularly after the creation of nominally “Communist” regimes, modeled on the degenerated Soviet workers' state, in Eastern Europe, East Asia and Cuba. Many petty-bourgeois radicals in the Third World identified themselves as socialists and even “Marxist-Leninists” in an attempt to associate themselves with the only political tendency in history to lead the masses in overturning a citadel of imperialism.

With the collapse of the Soviet bloc between 1989 and 1991 after decades of Stalinist bureaucratic rule, and the continuing drive toward capitalist restoration in China and the other surviving deformed workers' states, bourgeois intellectuals on both the left and right declared Leninism to be a dead letter. Moscow-loyal Communist Parties across Europe and beyond either disintegrated or moved dramatically to the right, openly embracing the “free market.” In a review of Robert Service's Comrades! A History of World Communism, Donald Sassoon claimed: “The communist movement was born on November 7, 1917, when the Bolsheviks seized the Winter Palace, and died between November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, and December 25, 1991, when the Soviet Union was abolished” (Foreign Affairs, July/August 2007). U.S. President George H.W. Bush declared that a “New World Order” under American leadership had been ushered in with the fall of the “Soviet Empire.”

Many commentators and politicians went further, seizing the moment to proclaim that any attempt to replace capitalism with socialism was either undesirable or impossible – a view that became widespread even among advanced layers of the working class. In 1989, U.S. State Department academic Francis Fukuyama published a now-infamous article entitled “The End of History,” in which he argued that the historical process had culminated in the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism,” i.e., capitalist democracy.

The bourgeoisie's euphoric bluster inevitably succumbed to the harsh reality of a global capitalist order in rapidly accelerating decline. The decades following the counterrevolution have painfully underscored that it is not socialism or Leninism that are obsolete but rather the capitalist mode of production, whose “laws of motion” produce ever greater economic, social, political and environmental crises. Imperialist war, the death of countless millions from malnutrition and easily curable diseases, environmental degradation, the erosion of democratic rights and freedoms, economic stagnation disrupted only by severe financial shocks – these and other byproducts of decaying capitalism constitute an imminent threat to the survival of our species with the situation only growing grimmer each year.

Yet the response of oppressed people – those most deeply impacted by the increasing degradation of society – has been fragmented and largely shaped by the ideological drivel of a debased liberal intelligentsia: a mixture of tepid social-democratic reformism and identity politics. This has led to the marginalization of the idea that workers constitute a distinct social class with historical interests directly counterposed to those of the ruling elite which place them objectively on a collision course with the capitalist system, and that the final goal of the class struggle must be the seizure of power by the working class. Humanity is confronted by a peculiar and distressing situation in which the objective conditions for proletarian revolution have never been riper, while the subjective prerequisites are almost non-existent. History shows that the oppressed will inevitably attempt to assert their own interests against those of a decrepit and declining ruling class. All the same, success is by no means inevitable – it depends on revolutionary subjectivity, mass organization and the presence of tested, authoritative leaders prepared to aggressively pursue the struggle for socialism to the end.

The historical relevance of the Russian Revolution lies in the fact that it is not simply “historical.” Indeed, the seizure of power by the working class a hundred years ago remains the best practical demonstration of how the subjective conditions for revolution can be brought into alignment with the objective conditions. The transition from the capitalist to the communist mode of production is the necessary and indispensable next step for human civilization if it is to survive. The bourgeois ideologues and former socialists who reject the idea of working-class revolution under the leadership of a Leninist party as hopelessly outdated offer no alternative whatsoever. If humanity is to have a future at all, then the Russian Revolution must once again be seen as the opening shot of worldwide socialist revolution.