Russian Revolution: The Promise of 1917

The short answer is that it was a betrayed revolution. Its emancipatory potential and boundless promises have been ruthlessly crushed by the very party that claimed to speak for the people.

Long before the capture of the Winter Palace, the Russian people had made a revolution. After the overthrow of the Tsar in March 1917, the peasants began to seize landed estates and workers’ committees multiplied in factories and shops.

Directly elected workers’ and soldiers’ councils, called soviets, sprang up in towns and cities all over Russia and soon became the real centers of power. Indeed, the Bolsheviks had no alternative but to promise “All power to the Soviets”.

Throughout the period, the people were more radical than the political parties, even the Bolshevik Party. As Trotsky said, “the masses were incomparably more revolutionary than the Party, which in turn was more revolutionary than its committee members.”

Lenin was the only Bolshevik leader to read the situation correctly, insisting that the time had come to seize power.

Those heady days were best described by Yuri Zhivago, Boris Pasternak’s hero: “Such things only happen once in an eternity… Freedom has fallen to us from the sky!” And in the beginning freedom was indeed glorious. great explosion of art. Futurism, Constructivism, Suprematism and other avant-garde genres flourished in the visual arts, in architecture, in poetry. The slogan of the poet Mayakovsky, “The streets our brushes, the squares our palettes” provoked a surge of public art and sculpture.

Nor was the euphoria limited to the arts. As John Reed puts it in Ten Days that Shook the World, “The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the Revolution into a frenzy of expression. From the Smolny Institute alone, for the first six months, tons, wagons, trains of literature came out every day, saturating the country. Russia absorbed the material to be read as burning sand drinks water, insatiable. And it was not fables, falsified history, watered down religion and cheap fiction that corrupted, but social and economic theories, philosophy, the works of Tolstoy, Gogol and Gorky.”

Social changes came massively and rapidly, many of them well ahead of their time. Equality of status between men and women, ease of divorce, legalization of abortion, possibility for a couple to take the name of the husband or the wife indifferently once married, sexual freedom, municipal childcare structures to allow women to work, decriminalization of homosexuality, free education, and the guarantee of the rights of minorities and ethnic nationalities were part of these profound changes.

But it wasn’t long before the slide into despotism began and the state swooped down with a heavy hand on dissenters, including left-wing rebels. As early as April 1918, a left-wing newspaper warned against “bureaucratic centralization, the rule of various commissars, the loss of independence of local soviets and in practice the rejection of the type of commune-state administered from below”.

The power of the factory committees was reduced, first by the promotion of the unions and when the unions became too independent, their leaders were replaced by party candidates. This was the beginning of the nomenklatura, with all important positions held by people appointed by the Communist Party.

At every stage, workers opposed the growing centralization and bureaucratization of government, but they fought a losing battle. Civil war was an excuse for the restriction of workers’ rights and at the Eighth All-Russian Congress of Soviets in December 1920, the Bolshevik leader Zinoviev admitted: “If we have deprived ourselves of the most basic democratic rights for workers and peasants , it’s time we put an end to this.” But that was just another empty promise.

Early 1921 saw an uprising of workers and sailors, known as the Kronstadt Rebellion. “We are fighting,” proclaimed the rebels, “for genuine power of the workers while the bloodthirsty Trotsky and the replete Zinoviev and their band of adherents fought for the power of the Party.”

The rebellion was soon suppressed. The dictatorship of the proletariat has become a dictatorship over the proletariat. The brief Russian spring turned into a long Russian winter.

There are many theories as to why the revolution went so wrong. These include the Menshevik notion that Russia was too underdeveloped for a socialist revolution; Trotsky’s thesis on the impossibility of building socialism in a single country; civil war and foreign invasions; the idea that the dictatorship of the proletariat would necessarily become the dictatorship of a new bureaucratic class; and the belief that all revolutions devour their children.

Nevertheless, the brief flowering of 1917 calls for celebration, because for a time it opened a window onto a whole new world, a world brimming with possibilities, full of promise.

Yes, it failed.

Yes, the chances of success in such a heroic endeavor are always low.

But his promise is too precious to let it wither away. What counts is the fight, the maintenance of the flame.

As Samuel Beckett so aptly put it: “It doesn’t matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Manas Chakravarty examines financial market trends and issues. Respond to this column at [email protected]

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